Enter the Unexpected: 9/3

The early week sweep of the A’s to conclude a home stand that began with some less than desired results, came as more of a relief, than a reason to celebrate. Still, the three consecutive wins brought with them a source of optimism as the Angels headed off to Arlington to face the Rangers, and hopefully make up for the 3-1 series loss to Texas at the Big A, a week back.

Leaving home brought the Angels an expected off day, but what was not anticipated was the significant overhaul of the ball club that General Manager Billy Eppler engineered on August 31, the last day acquired players might be eligible for post season play. For some time now, the Halos have been operating with deficiencies in left field and at second base. Though Josh Hamilton was acquired with much fanfare, and at a great cost to fill the left field gap, his stay with the Angels was both brief, and wholly unsuccessful. And with the trade a few years back of Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney to address pitching needs, the rotation of players at the keystone position has not resulted in establishing a reliable successor to the long time and much beloved Angel second baseman. It was assumed that these two long term needs would be addressed in the upcoming offseason, but with the Angels on the precipice of a playoff position, unexpected action came swiftly this week.

In the early afternoon of August 31, seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that Justin Upton, a coveted free agent outfielder this past offseason, had been acquired from Detroit. Then, within hours, came the news that Brandon Phillips, a four time all-star second baseman would leave the Braves to join the Angels. Just like that, the Angels were transformed from a team that seemed offensively challenged into a club that had a potent and balanced lineup. The optimism for September, and possibly October rose exponentially, and the dreams of Angel fans across America became instantly palpable. Angel followers had not anticipated these moves at the waiver deadline, nor were their rumors circulating about such possibilities. Full credit must go to Eppler, as well as Angels owner, Arte Moreno. Not only will the Angels be improved for the balance of the year but they must now be viewed as a contender in the years ahead should Upton and Phillips stay with the club and perform to expectations…provided of course the pitching staff gets healthy, stays healthy, and deliver what’s long been expected of it.

One might have thought that these acquisitions would produce immediate results, especially after the Oakland sweep. The A’s clearly were no match for the Angels at home…and that was before the arrivals of Upton and Phillips.  This past Monday, Andrew Heaney displayed superior pitching abilities in a 3-1 defeat of the Athletics. Though he went only six innings, Heaney struck out a career high ten batters and limited the A’s to two hits. In relief, Middleton, Petit, and Parker were solid in nailing down the win. On Tuesday, the Angels bats powered up in an 8-2 drubbing of the A’s which saw Madonado go deep, and Cron go deep twice. Finally, on Wednesday, the Halos showed a trait that has been the hallmark of their success this season, resilience. Staked to a 3-0 early lead, Parker Bridwell imploded, and within an instant, the Angels trailed 8-3. But, thanks to a homerun by Pujols (his second of the game) and a grand slam by Pennington, the Halos triumphed in a game that engendered some wonderful and positive emotion.

So, heading into Texas, hopes were high that with Upton and Phillips aboard, the Angels would send the Rangers and the American League a message that they were a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. Perhaps they will be, but the three game set in Texas highlighted that much as the Angels had addressed their hitting needs, the pitching staff appears to be riddled with question marks. Yielding 21 runs over 3 games as they did in Arlington, will not be a formula that might bring success to the Angels and result in a wild card birth. One can only hope that the staff is in the midst of either growing pains or a temporary late season slump.

The highlight of the Texas series was their sole win, which came on Saturday night. Down 4-2 with two outs in the ninth, Luis Valbuena doubled and CJ Cron followed with a line drive home run, just clearing the fence in left field on the fair side of the foul pole. A clutch hit by Kole Calhoun to drive in two made the difference in the tenth inning and gave the Angels a needed win following a valiant rally in Friday night’s game to tie the score, fell short.  The loss on Friday night felt especially bad as the second base umpire made three clearly incorrect calls, and though two were overturned, the last one, occurring in the ninth inning was inexplicably upheld and was partially responsible for the loss. Ugh!  On Sunday, the Angels fell behind early yet again, only to nearly tie the game with three runs in the top of the ninth. Unfortunately, they needed one more score and could not push it across as Luis Valbuena grounded to third to leave the bases loaded. Double Ugh!

If there were any silver linings in the series loss at Arlington, it could be seen in the play of Albert Pujols who went 7-13 with 7 RBI’s. With those runs batted in, Pujols now has 1,907 RBI’s and has moved past Willie Mays for 10th on the all-time list. Pujols now trails Eddie Murray by just ten RBI’s and Jimmie Foxx by 15.

Perhaps the addition of Upton and Phillips will afford everyone in the lineup some better protection and allow all an opportunity to see better pitches. Time will tell. One thing though is for certain: If the Angels are to play into October, they’ll need better outings from the starters, and more consistent efforts out of the pen…especially from Cam Bedrosian and Kenyan Middleton who have struggled significantly of late.

The AAA pitcher of the month for August was Blake Parker who seems to be Mike Scioscia’s choice of late to close games for the Angels. Parker picked up 3 saves in August, giving up but 3 runs in 13 outings, all in one game. Parker had a 2.13 ERA during August and held opposing batters to a .119 batting average. Honorable mention goes to Jesse Chavez who has performed well since losing his spot in the rotation and being relegated to the pen. Mike Trout had slightly better offensive numbers during August than CJ Cron did, but Cron’s clutch play, accompanied by 7 home runs and 18 RBI’s earned him the AAA batting honors.

The Angels have 25 games remaining down the stretch. They are tied with Baltimore, 1½ games behind the final playoff spot in the AL. To make the playoffs, they’ll need to win about 15 additional games. Make a wish. Say a prayer. Think good thoughts. Hope for the best.