For Angels, a strong finish is all that matters
The Angels made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason and, six weeks in, were one of the biggest busts of the regular season.But they've recovered quite nicely, thank you. Entering a huge weekend series with the rival Rangers and with 11 days to go before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, they can't be labeled as anything other than American League elite, even if the second half, to date, has been a bit of a struggle. "The thing is," said Albert Pujols, "all you guys that write papers and articles, all you think is that it's a one-month season. But it's a six-month season." I would have countered that the "all you guys" statement was a little too inclusive, as I am actually familiar with the length of the MLB season, but what's the sense in arguing with Albert Pujols? His point, after all, is a fair one: The nine-game deficit in the AL West the Angels carried at the end of April was insurmountable only in the sense that, well, nobody had ever come back from such a deficit so early to win their division. There's a first time for everything, right? "Just because you struggle the first 30 games doesn't mean you're going to struggle all year," Pujols continued. "We're professionals, and we know it's not how you start but how you finish." OK, so how will the Angels finish? The deficit has been cut, but it still stands at six games as Texas comes to town. The Rangers are relentless, and they've gotten healthier in their rotation. And although some of us on the outside might say there's no shame in finishing second to the two-time defending AL champs, there would be repercussions for the Halos. They don't want to think about potentially having to burn Jered Weaver in a Wild Card play-in game before entering a best-of-five Division Series. "Our main goal is to win our division, especially if we're within striking distance," outfielder Torii Hunter said. "We're within striking distance, and that's all we want. We want the division more than anything." This weekend presents an opportunity to take a step toward that goal, and so does the Deadline. The Angels entered 2012 with perhaps one of the top two or three rotational alignments in the game, after the offseason acquisition of C.J. Wilson. But thanks to the continuing struggles of Ervin Santana and the recent absences of Dan Haren and Jerome Williams (and Williams' troubles since his return), questions have arisen as to whether some outside starting help might be in order. If the Angels are going to make yet another significant splash -- this time in the trade department -- first-year general manager Jerry Dipoto isn't letting on. "The answers we're looking for are likely internal," Dipoto said. "The best moves we can make are getting Santana back on track and a fully healthy Haren contributing like Danny does. I don't know that we or anyone else could do better than that [at the Deadline]." Williams recently returned to the rotation after a scary bout with shortness of breath that led him to collapse in the clubhouse in June. He had a rough start in the Bronx last Saturday and another on Thursday in Detroit. Haren is expected back on Sunday after stiffness in his lower back forced him to his first-ever DL stint. The Angels express confidence that if Haren is healthy, he'll be more like the rock he was in '11 than the rocky performer he's been in '12. And Santana? Well, the confidence runs a little less freely there, simply because he's been so erratic. Seven of his 18 starts have seen him go at least six innings and give up two earned runs or fewer. Eight of those 18 have seen him go six innings or fewer and give up five earned runs or more. That's erratic, all right. "His highs have been high, and his lows have been low," Dipoto said. "Somewhere in a 30-start season, you're going to level the water a little bit. That's all we're looking for ... just the ability to be steady." How much do the Angels believe that Santana, Haren and Williams can attain and sustain that steadiness? And will their belief prevent them from dangling outfielder Peter Bourjos, designated hitter Kendrys Morales, or perhaps such young pitchers as Garrett Richards or Brad Mills to land a more proven starting arm? That's the big question, but Dipoto's public statements indicate that he's content to ride this rotation, as is. He's also pleased with his 'pen, even though it's had some notable flareups in the second half after a two-plus-month run of excellence. The early May acquisition of Ernesto Frieri from the Padres has proven to be one of the shrewdest moves of the season, as Frieri paired with Scott Downs to form a dominant back-end combo. Both had their first big hiccup in the Bronx last weekend, but their overall success, combined with the recent reemergence of an effective Kevin Jepsen, have made for an effective relief unit, on the whole. That said, the top teams can always use a bullpen boost this time of year, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see the Angels aggressively pursue one. "You always keep your ear to the street and try to find ways you can create depth," Dipoto said. "But I don't think you put together a two-and-a-half-month run like the guys did and have it be accidental." Nor is the Angels' offensive surge in recent months accidental. It's the result of Mike Trout's tremendous rookie year, Mark Trumbo's power presence and Pujols' unsurprising recovery from his April abyss. Offensively, the Angels should be fine. Pitching-wise, they might be fine, but tangling with the Rangers is no easy task, especially when you're still chipping away at that early deficit. "If we're talking about getting another starter, that would be good," Hunter said. "It's not a necessity, because Santana could be turning it around soon and Haren is coming back soon. But it wouldn't hurt." The Angels are still hurt in the standings by their awful entry into 2012, but they've recovered sufficiently to put themselves in the playoff picture. Now it's all about finishing.
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.