Rested Angels, Vlad set to swing hard

Tim Brown

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Vladimir Guerrero prefers a translator for these kinds of chats, the ones that advance beyond a passing greeting and an observation on the weather.

But with another October assured for his Los Angeles Angels, he sees the playoffs coming, even from this far back, and he smiles when he knows the question is coming.

"I want to be better," he says. "Yeah, I better be."

The home clubhouse Thursday afternoon carried the stench of a bachelor party gone bad – or very good. Parts of the carpet tugged at the soles of their flip-flops. Jered Weaver braced himself as he entered the thick of it.

"Nothing like that smell, huh?" he said to no one, to everyone.

The Angels slept off Wednesday evening's celebration, rinsed off the champagne, then pushed ahead for what the schedule said was 17 more games. They'd won their fourth AL West title in five years. They'd won it with barely a fight. They'd won a division championship at an earlier date than all but four other teams since 1995.

So, the tasks from what usually are three or four late-September days – health checks, rotation alignment, roster configuration – the Angels will live with and ruminate over for three weeks.

Already, they are balancing regular-season wins against postseason readiness, home-field advantage against the greater advantage of a rested pitching staff and lively legs.

The early details include a schedule that grants extra rest for starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana, along with breathing room for middle infielders Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick, both pushing through hamstring strains two weeks old. They could be playing and gathering at-bats again by next week.

Were the Angels still in a real race, Chone Figgins would be playing through a sore elbow, Mark Teixeira through a stubborn infection (details remain vague). Instead, they're resting, Brandon Wood (.188) and Sean Rodriguez (.190) are playing up the middle, and Torii Hunter is taking a couple of days off, guilt free, as imposed by MLB.

"It seems negative that we clinched so early?" Hunter said. "This is straight positive."

Manager Mike Scioscia will take a little extra care with his pitchers, closer Francisco Rodriguez among them. At some point, he'll trim his rotation to four for the playoffs. Weaver seems most likely to be bullpen bound, but Jon Garland remains a possibility. They'll keep as close to their routine as possible, with the greater good being 25 upright guys in the first week of October. It is the wisest course, after all, for the team with the best road record in the game.

"Home-field advantage is important," Scioscia said. "But not at the risk of going into the playoffs with a team that's banged up."

Though they had clinched more than a week before, the Angels limped into Boston for the division series last season. They were out in three games, a now familiar postseason routine for the Angels. Since winning the World Series in 2002, they've lost 12 of 16 playoff games.

And that brings us back to Guerrero.

"When October 1 comes," he said, smiling, "I gotta be swinging."

For all his regular-season heroism, carrying so much of the Angels offense for months at a time here, Guerrero has been a postseason bust. In four series over three Octobers, he has batted .183. He has homered once and driven in seven runs; that home run and six of those RBIs came in the same series, the 2004 ALDS against the Red Sox.

More than a functioning double-play combination, more than a Weaver-or-Garland call, more than an opening-day fresh roster, the Angels need a locked-in Vladimir Guerrero.

He is healthier than he was a year ago, when a rickety knee kept him out of right field for the final three weeks of the season. But he also is well off his typical offensive numbers, despite the offseason addition of Hunter, the early-August addition of Teixeira and a more productive second half.

The Angels will arrive in October with their best offense in years, one that will be that much better if Vlad can be Vlad again, and if the playoffs don't exacerbate his hyperaggressive tendencies.

"With Vlad, the bats around him are important," Angels GM Tony Reagins said. "Also, there's a sense of urgency to win. He – and we – see an opportunity to do something special. I think part of that with Vlad is wanting to get the big hit, wanting to be productive, feeling like he's got to carry the team."

That should ease with Teixeira batting third, just ahead of him. In 38 games with the Angels, Teixeira has nine home runs and 33 RBIs.

"My opinion," Garret Anderson said, "guys like him in that part of the lineup, it's not who hits behind them, but who hits in front of him, how many guys are on base."

Then, of course, Guerrero is free to swing away, not that he'd have it any other way.

"That's what makes him special," Anderson said. "After doing this his whole life, it is what it is."

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