Is this weekend's series against the Texas Rangers pivotal?
No, because no series in July is truly pivotal and, with two wild cards, we may not see a truly pivotal series until mid-September. But the Angels are only going to have so many opportunities to make up ground and it's a lot easier to get to the World Series now if you win your division, so it's a big, big series.
To preview it, we caught up with colleague Richard Durrett, who covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. Durrett and I took turns asking each other questions about the two AL West rivals:
MS: It seems like both of these teams suddenly have some issues with their starting rotations. What's the latest on the Texas starting rotation and do you think any concerns are long-term or just blips in the middle of a season?
RD: For the Rangers, it's more about injuries. They avoided any roster move for the first five weeks of the season and then the injuries hit all at once. But they are starting to see some reinforcements. Derek Holland is back and has pitched well in two starts off the DL. Colby Lewis allowed just one run in five innings on Wednesday in his first start off the DL. Roy Oswalt bounced back with a better showing in his first start after the All-Star break. Yu Darvish is still looking for consistency with his command and didn't have it despite 11 days off (that includes the All-Star Game because he didn't pitch). He'll get another shot this weekend. Matt Harrison remains the club's most solid performer in 2012.
RD: What should Rangers fans expect from Dan Haren this weekend, assuming he pitches on Sunday?
MS: Tough one, Richard. On the one hand, Haren’s stuff hasn’t looked as crisp this season, including in a Single-A rehab game Monday night. On the other hand, he seems intent on proving to everyone he’s still a front-line starting pitcher. One thing they should expect is a relatively short outing, at least by his standards. I imagine he’ll be on a 90-pitch limit coming off lower back inflammation. One thing they can’t expect is for him to beat himself. If he walks more than two batters in a game, he’s having an off night.
MS: Did people in Texas expect Mike Napoli to do what he did last year again this season? Or, did people realize he's a super-streaky hitter?
RD: They know he's streaky and didn't expect him to hit .383 for the season like he did for the second half of 2011. But they sure didn't expect a .223 average. Napoli hasn't looked comfortable at the plate except for one week where he really tore the cover off the ball earlier this season. He's missing pitches he crushed last year and is striking out at a much higher rate than he has in his career. It's a surprise to see him in a rough patch for this long. Will a series against his former team help get him going?
RD: We talk a lot about Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo, but when the season started Kendrys Morales was seen as a key offensive producer to help Albert Pujols in that lineup. How has he been?
MS: I guess mediocre would probably be the word. He has gotten his share of hits, but hasn’t really driven the ball as well as he did before he broke his leg. It’s all perfectly understandable. What’s not as understandable is why it took Mike Scioscia until mid-July to install Trumbo as his cleanup hitter and slide Morales down a spot.
MS: We've seen some unpredictability from C.J. Wilson lately. When he struggled with Texas, did it typically last a while or was he good at making adjustments between starts?
RD: Wilson put up some stinkers in Texas too and bounced back just fine. He makes adjustments and figures it out. He's a big thinker -- maybe even an overthinker at times -- and few in the league work harder between starts. He'll have his rough starts, but rarely do they turn into long patches of struggles. Don't worry about Wilson in the regular season. The question will be if he can get things figured out in the playoffs.
RD: If Craig Gentry and Mike Trout were in a 40-yard dash, who would win and by how much?
MS: I don’t know much about Craig Gentry, but I think the Angels would take Trout over just about anybody who doesn’t return kicks in the NFL.
MS: The Angels and Rangers had big contingents at the All-Star game. I think there were 12 guys between the two teams, about one-third of the AL squad. What did the Texas guys say, if anything, about sharing a clubhouse with Angels players? Do you think this is a tense rivalry, an intense rivalry or just another three games on the schedule?
RD: I think fans and media make more of the "intense" rivalry than the players. There's mutual respect from both clubs and they've expected a spirited rivalry. But I wouldn't call it intense and there's no dislike that I can see between the teams. They both want to win and they'll play hard.
RD: Why has Ervin Santana struggled so much this season?
MS: I can’t give a detailed answer in terms of his mechanics or anything, but his raw stuff doesn’t seem to be the issue. He’s the hardest thrower in the Angels' rotation and still has a nice slider. I guess you could point to whether he needed to tinker with a new pitch in the last few years. You could wonder about a pattern which tends to see him struggle one season and rebound the next and whether that says something about his focus.
MS: Do you expect Daniels to be active at the deadline? Where does he seem to be focusing?
RD: GM Jon Daniels is always active at the trade deadline. It's in his nature. But he's in a good spot here. The Rangers don't have to make a deal. If the right one is out there -- like maybe a top-of-the-rotation starter like Cole Hamels -- they can decide whether that's worth a top prospect or not (I don't think it is, but it depends on how badly they want a rental like Hamels on top of the rotation come the playoffs). But the club could use a right-handed bat off the bench too and could consider a left-handed specialty reliever. So no matter what happens, I expect they'll be active.
RD: Do the Angels plan on getting aggressive at the trade deadline? Do they have some pieces in the minor leagues that they could deal to get an impact player? What are their biggest needs?
MS: Yes, and no. I think they would love to be aggressive, but no, they don’t have a ton of minor-league depth, particularly in the pitching department, which is what rebuilding teams often want. I’m pretty sure GM Jerry Dipoto will make a move. I’m not at all sure what it will be.