AL West race comes down to starting pitching
ARLINGTON -- There are nine weeks left in the season and only hours remaining before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
It's a good time to take inventory. For the Rangers and Angels, that starts with the starters.
The Angels made their big move in throwing a lasso around Zack Greinke, an All-Star talent most recently with the Brewers. Ervin Santana would like to remind us he's been an All-Star, too, in 2008, and a 17-game winner as recently as '10.
On the heels of four substandard outings, Santana delivered five solid innings and wore the wide smile of a winner following a 15-8 knockout of Texas on Monday night. It was punctuated by two homers, including a grand slam, by Kendrys Morales during a nine-run sixth inning.
Santana was charged with three runs, Rangers starter Roy Oswalt with eight. The Angels shaved the Rangers' American League West lead to four games by taking the opener of a Texas-sized four-game series.
"It's a very good feeling to win again," Santana said, having been winless since dealing a one-hit shutout against the D-backs on June 16. "A lot of positive things in my mind. My slider was way better, and my fastball was coming out very good."
Oswalt, one of the best in his prime, absorbed the loss, but he wasn't as bad as his raw numbers -- eight earned runs on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings -- suggest.
"I've got six starts in, 10 days in between [starts]," Oswalt said, having missed one with back issues. "I'm trying to get in the rhythm of throwing and just didn't feel it tonight. I actually felt pretty [good]. It was just a lack of throwing."
One bad pitch, a hanging hook, changed everything from Texas manager Ron Washington's viewpoint. Morales lifted it into the right-field seats for the two runs that got the nine-run uprising rolling, with the Angels punishing lefty Robbie Ross after Oswalt's exit with the bases loaded and one out.
"Up until the sixth inning, it's a competitive game," Washington said. "It all started with one hanging breaking ball to Morales."
Oswalt, fighting his mechanics, was unable to bring his stuff down into favorable zones.
"No Spring Training, and the guy's competing at a high level," Washington said. "He made a couple mistakes tonight, and we just couldn't stop them."
The Rangers have been operating with an unsettled rotation for quite some time. Front-end starters Colby Lewis (out for the season with a tear in his right elbow) and Neftali Feliz (elbow inflammation) are on the outside looking in, wondering with everyone else how Washington will make it work.
A man with a decorated past, Oswalt wants to lend a hand, but he didn't do much in his sixth outing to inspire confidence.
"I kind of felt my mechanics the whole game," he said. "I never really had a consistent arm slot. The ball just kept coming up, coming up."
And disappearing. Oswalt watched the flight of homers by Maicer Izturis, Mike Trout and Morales. It was only the fifth time in 341 career games Oswalt has been tagged for three or more homers.
"I made a bad pitch to Morales," Oswalt said. "It was supposed to be a curveball in the dirt. I decided to change my grip and make it a hard one, extra special -- and left it up. The ball on Trout kind of ran on me. It's all about arm angles."
Santana had enough life on his fastball and late break on his slider to get the 15 outs requested by manager Mike Scioscia, moving to 5-10.
"No doubt it's good for him to get through five and give us a chance to win," Scioscia said. "I don't know if he was as crisp as we'd hoped ... but ultimately, it's a step forward.
"We need Ervin back where he needs to be -- not just a solid outing. We're searching for some good outings aside from what [Jered Weaver] and C.J. [Wilson] are doing."
Santana and Oswalt are in similar places, trying to show their employers they are worthy of rotation roles down the stretch of what promises to be an entertaining race. An unexpected long shot from Oakland has made it a three-horse derby, with only Seattle left out of the running.
Oswalt actually carried a tie game into the sixth when the Angels -- shut out by the Rays on Saturday and Sunday -- went a little crazy with eight hits, bringing 12 men to the plate.
Oswalt, signed on May 29, has made three good starts, three bad ones. He's 3-2 with a 6.49 ERA, bloated by nine earned runs coughed up against the White Sox in 4 2/3 innings on July 3 and now this beating by the Angels.
It wasn't a complete loss for Texas. Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Mike Napoli homered, signs that a slumbering offense is starting to stir.
The Angels feel their big four of Weaver, Wilson, Greinke and Dan Haren stacks up with any in the game. Santana's return to form would make it potentially dominant.
In the wings are Garrett Richards, blessed with everything but experience, and veteran Jerome Williams, who finished up for Santana and saved wear on the bullpen.
The Rangers aren't exactly hurting with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Scott Feldman and Oswalt or Alexi Ogando. There has been talk of a big deal, but this rotation can get it done once the bashers resume bashing.
Recent history tells us they will -- and soon.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.