The Angels won their fourth straight game (and 6th of last 7) yesterday in completing a sweep of the Kansas City Royals. They are now 16-14 and just a half game behind the Rangers for the top spot in the AL West. The makeshift starting rotation has been one of the best in the AL all season without studs John Lackey and Ervin Santana, who are both set to make their debuts later this week. Fill-ins Shane Loux, Matt Palmer and Anthony Ortega have performed very capably, especially Palmer (pictured left) who has gone 3-0 with a 3.06 ERA. His solid work has probably earned him a chance to remain in the rotation when Lackey and Santana return, with Loux probably heading back to the bullpen and Ortega, who got roughed up by the Blue Jays in his last start, heading back to Salt Lake.
While the youngsters have been doing their part, it's been mainstays Joe Saunders and Jered Weaver who have led the way. Both sport tidy 2.66 ERA's with Saunders going 5-1 and Weaver 3-1. These two were counted on to hold the rotation together with Lackey and Santana out, and both have answered the bell. It's beginning to look like Saunders' All-Star 2008 season was not the fluke many made it out to be. He's beginning to remind me a bit of Mark Buehrle, a guy who's not everpowering, but just knows how to pitch and get guys out. On Saturday night, he outdueled Zack "Cy Young" Greinke, matching him pitch-for-pitch and making a single Angels run hold up in a complete game shut-out. Greinke had all the headlines coming in, and he was as good as advertised, but Joe did what top of the rotation guys need to do. It was an impressive start to say the least. Weaver is also coming off a CG, his perhaps even more impressive than Saunders's, as he surrendered only 1 run to the scorching hot Blue Jays in a 6-1 win. All the Blue Jays did the previous night was score 13 runs on 15 hits. Weaver cooled them off in a hurry.
The bullpen has looked better as of late, but still not the rock-solid, lock-down pen of past Angels teams. Closer Brian Fuentes has looked better of late, though he got bailed out big time yesterday by Torii Hunter, who snatched what would have been the game-tying HR off the bat of Miguel Olivo 2 feet over the centerfield fence. If you haven't seen it, YouTube that action...it was AWESOME. Fuentes has 9 saves in 11 chances, and while his 15 K's in 11.2 innings is nice, his .298 BAA is not. He hasn't walked a ton of guys, but his location isn't quite where it needs to be. Closer-in-waiting Jose Arredondo has looked better lately as well. He's K'd 19 in just 13.2 innings of work, but also has an uncharacteristically high BAA of .288. His ERA has been slowly shrinking, but still stands at a putrid 5.27. It looks like Arredondo will be just fine, though. Scot Shields, on the other hand doesn't look fine. He had a nice outing yesterday, but has not shown any semblance of consistency. In 11.2 innings, he's issued 12 BB while striking out 8 batters. His .195 BAA suggests he still has the stuff to get guys out, when he's not issuing walk after walk, after walk. Jury's still out on Shieldsy, and the team desperately needs him to turn it around.
With Seattle coming back to reality and the A's not hitting, the Rangers have emerged as the Angels chief competition in the division. While not entirely unexpected, the offensive powerhouse Rangers have gotten solid work from starters Kevin Milwood (hello, contract year) and Vicente Padilla, along with Matt Harrison. They've also been without slugger Josh Hamilton, who returns this week. Look out.
Along with the returning pitchers, the Angels offense should get a shot of Vlad in a few weeks. He's going to be the team's full-time DH when he returns, it appears, which is the right play in my opinion. Keep Vlad as healthy as possible. The offense continues to be OK without him, as Torii Hunter and Mike Napoli have been hot. Also, there's been a Gary Matthews sighting...he's playing very well lately and will probably continue to start somewhere in the OF when Vlad returns.
So the Angels weathered the storm of injuries and are playing the best ball they've played all season. If the return of the starters can help to settle the bullpen, with Loux and Palmer heading down, the team should look like the Angels teams we've seen the last few seasons. It won't be a cakewalk, however, as the Rangers don't look like they're going to fade anytime soon and the A's bats have woken up a bit lately. The AL West is more up for grabs than it has been the last few seasons, and it could be a 3 or 4 horse race all season.