The Angels were hot.
The Rangers are hot. In fact they’re smoldering, having won 11 straight games.
If the Angels can’t find a way to reverse the tenses on those two statements, their shot at contending this year could be a thing of the past. This week’s three-game series in Anaheim between the first- and second-place teams in the AL West will set the table for the rest of this summer’s pennant race.
To set it up, I got together, via e-mail, with colleague Richard Durrett from ESPNDallas.com to set up the biggest series of the year:
MS: The Rangers are the hottest team in baseball. Is there a single explanation or just a team playing really well in all facets?
RD: It honestly is all facets. They are pitching very well with the starters going deep in games and the bullpen finally settling into roles. Mark Lowe has been critical, pitching well in the eighth inning and helping slot everyone into better spots in the pen. The defense, which was suspect the first three months, has been much better and the club is making things happen on the bases even when the home run isn't there. During this 11-game streak, they are averaging more than 6 runs a game. It's all come together for them.
RD: The Angels played very well in the weeks leading up to the All-Star break. Can you tell us what's been the key or keys?
MS: Yeah, before this lost weekend in Oakland, they had won nine straight series. It was a very productive month. Why? The one word answer is: power. They finally showed some, particularly at home, where they had been anemic through the first couple of months. Mark Trumbo has hit 18 home runs, putting him in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race. The two word answer is: Vernon Wells. He finally got locked in, particularly in the power department.
MS: Does the Rangers’ focus going into the trade deadline remain the bullpen? What is your best guess about how big an impact any potential acquisition would make for this team? Will it get done?
RD: The focal point does remain bullpen. I think they'll get some sort of right-handed arm. But I'm not certain it will be a big name and it will only be at what they deem a decent price. Right now, the asking price on guys like Mike Adams, Andrew Bailey, Tyler Clippard is just way too high. We'll see if that changes closer to the deadline. But the fact that the bullpen has pitched better means they aren't in any great rush or panic mode over it.
RD: Mansfield's Jordan Walden has seized the closer's role. Talk about his season and why he's having so much success.
MS: It's pretty simple with him. It's raw stuff. After a bunch of injuries, the Angels finally realized he wasn't a starter at the start of last season and he has risen like a rocket since then. He throws 96 to 102 mph and he has developed a wicked slider. He has a little problem sometimes walking leadoff men, and that has usually been what's gotten him in trouble. But the Angels aren't complaining about having their rookie closer make the All-Star team and stabilize the back end of their bullpen. Sound familiar, Texas fans?
MS: Has Josh Hamilton continued to talk about the horrible incident involving the fan falling to his death? How do you think it's affecting him?
RD: He has talked about it, but we've left him alone following the All-Star break in terms of questions. It still has an impact on him emotionally, but he's done a great job of focusing on his job. He still throws balls to fans in BP, but he's careful as to where he throws them. Overall, I've been really impressed with how well he's handled the entire situation and the compassion he's shown. His teammates are impressed too.
RD: Are Angels fans starting to see the better version of Vernon Wells? Why?
MS: He was a mess at the start of the season. One thing that hasn't gotten much ink is a strained hamstring that cost him the last week of spring training and started the season on the wrong foot, literally. He finally got hurt, got some time to rest, and has steadily improved. He was hitting .179 when he came off the DL for a strained groin. He is a very good hitter, though he doesn't give you much on-base percentage. If he keeps driving the ball, the Angels should at least maintain a semblance of offensive continuity.
MS: Last year, the starting pitching held up a lot better than people expected it to? Do you think it's as good this year and as capable of holding up through those proverbial hot months?
RD: I don't think it's as good as last year simply because Cliff Lee isn't at the top of the rotation. But overall, I think it's deeper. Matt Harrison has turned into a consistent starter with a 1.94 ERA in his last 10 outings. C.J. Wilson gives the club innings and is consistent, earning an All-Star bid. Alexi Ogando is someone they'll monitor in terms of innings, but his stuff is some of the best in the league. Colby Lewis has been inconsistent, but is starting to pitch better and Derek Holland has two straight solid starts. It's very good right now.
RD: How did the Angels feel about playing a scheduled doubleheader on Saturday in Oakland? Was it worth it for the extra day after the All-Star break?
MS: As I understand it, they voted to approve it, with the caveat that they get Monday off. I guess if you're going to play four games in that depressing ballpark, you may as well do it in three days, right? Because they were off Thursday and Monday, even Sunday's one-third-of-an-inning from Joel Pineiro shouldn't punish their bullpen too badly for this big series.
MS: The Rangers have 10 games left in Anaheim. Do they typically feel comfortable playing there? Why has this team been so much better at home, not withstanding this series against a crumbling Mariners team?
RD: They don't have a great answer to why they are so much better at home, but lately they've been getting more consistent on the road. They aren't worried about playing at Anaheim. They won some big games and close games last year out there. It won't be easy, they know that, but it's a confident group.
RD: Can you give us a quick scouting report on the starters the Rangers will face in the series?
MS: Tyler Chatwood is only 21 years old. He throws a hard sinker a lot of the time, sits in the low 90s. Until the Angels skipped him in the rotation, he led the AL in walks, so that's one way he can get in a lot of trouble. Dan Haren has been struggling sporadically lately, but he's one of the toughest starters around when he's on. He's one of the few guys who still throws a split-finger fastball, so he can get strikeouts at key times. Jered Weaver is having, by some key measures, the best four-month start of a season since Pedro Martinez in 2000. There's not much more I can say about him. He started the All-Star game.
RD: Anything else about the Angels that Rangers fans should know heading into this series?
MS: They're talking about adding a left-handed hitter or middle reliever before the trading deadline, but I continue to hear they don't want to spend a lot of money. If the Rangers can land a knockout blow this week, they could set themselves up for an easy August and September. Then again, I wouldn't let a Mike Scioscia team stick around too long or things could get hairy, because he usually has them ready to play.