Punchless Angels remain dangerous in AL West

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Maybe, after our falling out with the Pittsburgh Pirates, our growing disenchantment with the Cleveland Indians, and our three-month stand with the Tampa Bay Rays, it's time to consider the Los Angeles Angels.

The team with the dreadful offense.

The team that was wholly outmaneuvered last winter.

The team whose owner reminded us that these Angels were not to be confused with those Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.

Vernon Wells(notes) has a .383 slugging percentage, spending 77 games batting cleanup or fifth for the light-hitting Angels.
(Getty Images)

The team whose time had passed.

The team that, on the eve of a three-game series in New York and with four games next week against the Texas Rangers, should have been done by now.

The rotation is top heavy, a rookie anchors the bullpen, and while the defense is sturdy enough, the batting order runs four or five deep on its best nights.

A season-and-a-half later, the Angels still don't know who they are without Kendrys Morales(notes). His absence is so daunting that in the time he's spent rehabbing his broken leg they've pluralized his first name, like they're missing two guys.

In the span of several months, they'd lost the best hitter – Vladimir Guerrero(notes) – in franchise history, Chone Figgins(notes) in the hours following his career year, then Morales. And while the Guerrero and Figgins decisions proved shrewd, the Angels dropped 202 runs from 2009 to 2010 and were trending to drop 60 more through 115 games in 2011.

It's why they were consigned to third place in the four-team AL West, and why – when they were six games behind the Rangers on June 10, and five games back on July 19 – it was time again to gaze dolefully at Morales' empty locker and identify the free agents they wouldn't sign next winter.

The best pitching staff in the league – statistically speaking – would be undone by a nine-man smoke wisp that is worst in the majors at scoring its leadoff hitter, whose cleanup hitters' OPS is 82 points below the major league average, whose catchers bat .198, whose batting average with men on base is second-worst in the league, and, when all that isn't working again, whose pinch-hitters have three hits in 45 at-bats.

And yet the Angels awake in New York City on Tuesday 1½ games behind the Rangers, alive after four months, and dangerous in that they're-always-an-uncomfortable-play kind of way. Presumably, in keeping with the theme of the season, they will harness up Jered Weaver(notes), Dan Haren(notes) and Ervin Santana(notes) and have them pull the bus to Yankee Stadium. Scott Downs(notes) and Jordan Walden(notes) get the last block.

This, however, is what makes Mike Scioscia so good. The Angels are again greater than the sum of their misshapen, wild-swinging, reckless, aging and sometimes entirely overmatched parts. They're a little like the San Francisco Giants in some regards, which illustrates the narrowness of the line the Angels walk, because they've got plenty of Seattle Mariners in them, too.

Since July 1, only the Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies have won more often than the Angels, who've taken the fight to the Rangers by batting .222 since the All-Star break and passing entirely at the trading deadline.

The problem was, every time GM Tony Reagins asked about a hitter, the price was Mike Trout(notes). So, he had a lot of short conversations, none of which delivered a run-producing third baseman or DH, or a catcher who could both hit and meet Scioscia's defensive standards.

So, the Angels go into the heat of summer to battle the Rangers with Torii Hunter(notes) having his least productive season since he was 23, Vernon Wells batting .212 and Bobby Abreu(notes) OPS-ing .709.

On too many nights, that leaves the offense to rookie Mark Trumbo(notes), Howie Kendrick(notes), Erick Aybar(notes), Alberto Callaspo(notes) and Peter Bourjos(notes).

And this is why the Rangers have outscored them by 139 runs and why the Rangers can commit the most errors in the AL and still lead the division.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia is getting by with a top-heavy pitching rotation and a batting order full of holes.

Scioscia pondered his lineup late one recent night, long after the clubhouse cleared. He sees hitters in that room, he said. He sees work ethic and veteran poise and a way to catch the Rangers.

It won't be enough to hand the baseball to Weaver and Haren and Santana. It won't be enough to catch the baseball. The coming forty-some games, they'll be about the three men he talks himself into putting in the middle of the lineup every night.

"It has to materialize," he said. "If it doesn't, it's going to be very tough for us. We have to be better than threatening every third inning. Absolutely the offense has to move forward in the next month."

Hunter started to hit last week, and that makes one of them.

Yet, the Angels have lost a single series since early June. They've found wins where there shouldn't be any. They've huddled behind the pitching staff, which won't let them lose, and pushed.

Who knows, this could be Scioscia's greatest creation yet. You know, considering.

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