Angels, Rangers gear up for wild race
First place in AL West up for grabs in three-game set in Arlington
The immortal Western "How the West Was Won" chronicled five decades' worth of westward migration, a pivotal point in American development that included long journeys on covered wagons, run-ins with villainous river pirates, bloody battles with Confederate troops and gunfights over gold.The story of how the American League West was won in 2011 won't be quite as epic, but it's definitely been arduous by baseball standards. This is the division race that won't die, no matter how many people wrote off the Angels just a week ago and no matter how assured it has seemed all season that the defending division and league champion Rangers are bound for October. Sure, Texas has spent all but 10 days of this season in first place and hasn't been out of first since May 15. And sure, it has a run differential 77 runs better than that of the Halos. The standings aren't all that reflective of those facts. It's merely a two-game lead that the Rangers take into this weekend's three-game set against the Angels in Arlington. This is a race, people. Really. Truly. Honestly. I swear. And with so few legitimate division duels still being staged here at the end of August (the National League West is the only division in which the second-place club is within five games of the first), it's a must-see series taking place in Texas. The Angels are certainly taking it seriously. After trotting Dan Haren out for Friday's opener in his regular turn in the rotation, manager Mike Scioscia is expected to pitch Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver on three days' rest on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. It's an October-like sense of urgency pre-September, and you have to appreciate the sentiment even if you scrutinize the strategy. "If you're going to a four-man rotation or using guys on short rest three or four times through the rotation, some guys might unravel if they're not used to it," Scioscia said. "But this would be a one-time deal, so these guys should be fine." Hey, it's worth a shot, because, as we all know by now, the Halos are only going to go as far as the studs at the forefront of their rotation take them. As is often cited, last year's Giants set a standard for what a team can accomplish with a robust rotation that offsets an offense that doesn't dazzle and that timely intangible known as momentum. The Angels have proven to have the first element of the formula (their starting staff has the best ERA in the league, while their offense ranks 10th in runs and 11th in OPS), and they're riding the second into the weekend, having won six straight. Ultimately, it's hard to trust an offense in which the only qualifier with an OPS above .800 is Howie Kendrick (.294 average, .803 OPS) and in which both Vernon Wells (.205, .607) and Bobby Abreu (.251, .710) are still getting consistent at-bats, despite the presence of prized prospect Mike Trout (4-for-12 with a double and a homer since his return to the bigs). Trout is expected to play this weekend, and that's a good thing. It also helps the Halos' cause that Torii Hunter has finally figured it out in August, batting .392 and raising his average 30 points in the process. The offensive boost Anaheim native Mark Trumbo (23 homers, 69 RBIs) has provided with Kendrys Morales again out of the picture has been huge, as has the defensive prowess and underrated offensive contributions of Peter Bourjos. This clearly is not a lineup that would scare all comers in October, but the rotation would surely give the opposition plenty to think about. Weaver, who took the hometown discount to sign on for five more seasons, Haren and Santana have each made at least 17 starts of seven or more innings, and they have three of the top 12 starters' ERAs in the AL, with Weaver (2.03) leading the league. Just think where the Angels would be with a little more stability in the back end of the bullpen, where closer Jordan Walden has blown a Major League-leading nine save opportunities in an otherwise solid rookie season. The Angels ought to be taken seriously, because that three-headed monster at the forefront of the rotation is seriously scary. Nobody would take the Halos' lineup over that of the Rangers, and that's ultimately why Texas has been favored all year to lock down its second consecutive crown. But Adrian Beltre's hamstring issues have been a nagging concern for more than a month now. In Beltre's absence, Michael Young moved back to the hot corner, opening up more DH opportunities for Mike Napoli, who is having a career year. But there's little question that the Rangers are a more elite unit with Beltre on the field, so they can't afford any more setbacks. "We've got to keep the Josh Hamiltons and the Nelson Cruzes and the Adrian Beltres and the Elvis Andruses and the Michael Youngs and the Ian Kinslers on the field," manager Ron Washington told me earlier this month. "That's going to be the key." Cliff Lee was the key to the Rangers staging an October run last year. Thanks in large part to Alexi Ogando's successful transition from the bullpen, Texas' rotation has carried on well without Lee. Ogando, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland all have at least 10 wins, and Wilson (adjusted ERA of 141), Ogando (122) and Harrison (121) have been among the top-tier starters in the game. But Lee's absence does loom large in a less-tangible sense, in that the Rangers don't have that same predictable dominance anchoring the rotation that they once did. And while Wilson's prominent showing down the stretch and in the postseason last year set a nice precedent to combat any converted reliever concern, it bears monitoring that Ogando, who had never previously started in his professional career, has already doubled his innings total from 2010. Harrison is nearing that point as well. And Holland has also amassed the highest innings count of his professional career, with a month remaining. How well those guys rise to the occasion of the home stretch will determine whether or not the Rangers repeat. In the immediate, this is a must-win series for the Angels, not mathematically but emotionally, especially given the way they've aligned their rotation. Five weeks from now, when we look back at how the West was won, this series will, I'm sure, have proved to be a pivotal point in the process.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.