ANAHEIM -- With time, innings limits and pitch counts have become more pronounced and bullpen roles have taken on significantly more importance. But starting pitching still has the biggest say on success and failure. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman likes to call it "the keys to the kingdom." Angels manager Mike Scioscia will frequently refer to it as "the heartbeat of our club."
When the Angels stumbled out of the gate in the second half, putting themselves in the uphill climb for the postseason they currently face, starting pitching was the biggest culprit.
And now, as they've turned their season around, it's starting pitching that has led the way.
The latest example came Sunday afternoon, when newcomer Zack Greinke pitched seven innings of two-run ball against the Tigers, giving the Angels yet another solid start and leading them to yet another sweep in a 3-2 victory at Angel Stadium.
The Angels have won six straight, and 11 of their last 12, to move to six in back of the Rangers for the top spot in the American League West, one in back of the Orioles for the second AL Wild Card spot and a season-best 14 games above .500.
"That is a very good club right now," Tigers skipper Jim Leyland said. "That is one of the best clubs in baseball right now. They are playing that way."
"Like I always say, all cylinders have to click for you to win -- and it's been clicking," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "Our offense, our defense, our pitching, bullpen, everything's clicking. And when it's clicking, you win."
But it's starting pitching that the Angels' second-half results have resembled most closely.
In their first 36 second-half games, the rotation posted a 5.50 mark that was the second-highest in the AL, and the team went 14-22. Over their last 18 games, though, their rotation ERA is 2.92 -- and the Angels have gone a Major League-best 15-3.
"That's not surprising," said Scioscia, whose club starts a four-game series Monday against an A's team they recently swept. "I think you're going to notice that on most teams. That's not surprising at all. The rotation is the heartbeat of your team. It is. As talented a group of guys as they are, when they're off a little bit, it makes it tough to move forward, and when they're throwing the way they can, you can get on a roll like we are right now. Hopefully that's going to continue."
Not too long ago, an Angels rotation that features five All-Stars making a combined $61.45 million this season was woefully underachieving. But little by little, they've each put it together -- the exception being Jered Weaver, the one constant who's currently nursing what seems like a non-threatening bout of tendinitis.
Dan Haren, limited with his repertoire like never before, has a 1.45 ERA in his last three starts. Ervin Santana, having one of the worst seasons of his career, has pitched at least six innings in each of his last seven starts. C.J. Wilson, previously riding a career-long 11-start winless streak, has won three straight. And Greinke, who posted a 7.20 ERA in his first four August starts, has pitched as advertised since, giving up just six earned runs on 19 hits in his last 28 2/3 innings to drop his ERA from 4.01 to 3.68 on the season. He's struck out 23 during that span.
On Sunday, he scattered five hits, walked one, struck out seven and outdueled Tigers starter Anibal Sanchez, who gave up only a leadoff homer to Mike Trout -- his second in as many games -- and a second-inning two-run shot to Alberto Callaspo.
The Angels have received nine quality starts in their last 11 games.
"I expect the whole staff to go out and throw a quality start every start," Greinke said. "If someone doesn't throw a quality start, that's surprising.
"I thought it was going to be like this the whole time. Our pitching staff is so talented. I mean, it's pretty amazing. So I just expected it to be good right away."
But now that it is good, that success has seeped into the bullpen, which was never deep enough to absorb the amount of innings it previously was asked to handle.
In that 36-game stretch in which the rotation faltered, the Angels' bullpen led the Majors with a 5.26 ERA. Over their last 18 games, though, they've given up 12 earned runs in 44 2/3 innings, good for a 2.42 ERA.
On Sunday, Kevin Jepsen recorded the first two outs and Ernesto Frieri notched a four-out save, giving him 18 saves on the year. In the eighth, he struck out the lefty-hitting Andy Dirks, who hit a solo homer off Greinke in the fourth inning, with a runner on second and two outs. In the ninth, he issued a leadoff walk to Miguel Cabrera, then struck out Prince Fielder and Delmon Young, and, after a Callaspo error put the tying run in scoring position, got Jhonny Peralta to bounce into a game-ending fielder's choice.
The game has changed a lot over time. But one old saying, "You're only as good as your next day's starter," still applies.
Angels relievers will tell you that, too.
"The bullpen is a lot fresher these days," Frieri said in Spanish. "The starters are going six, seven innings every time they pitch, and that motivates [the relievers] to follow on the example that they've been setting."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.