Friday, March 5, 2010
Updated: March 8, 9:56 AM ET
A scratch-less fivesome
By Jerry Crasnick
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Golf was a wonderful bonding ritual for Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in Atlanta, so the Angels' pitchers have reason to believe they'll benefit from the occasional 18 holes followed by a friendly round of beers.
Bridging the fashion gap in the clubhouse might be their biggest challenge.
Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir and Jered Weaver played golf this week with bench coach Ron Roenicke, and Saunders, a 2-handicapper, brought his sartorial A-game to the park. Before dressing for Wednesday's workout, he took a retina-searing ensemble of electric chartreuse shirt and blue plaid pants with gold stripes and hung it in front of his locker. It made Ian Poulter's wardrobe look muted by comparison.
"Awesome," Saunders said of the outfit. "You have to be good to wear something like that, and I'm pretty good."
While several Angels poked fun at Saunders for looking like a human Magic Marker, Kazmir gave his rotation-mate points for effort.
"When he hangs it from the ceiling, it's pretty intimidating," Kazmir said. "He pulled out all the stops."
This is what it means to forge a new dynamic in a rotation. On the back wall of the Angels' Tempe clubhouse, the team's starting pitchers dress five in a row. Kazmir's locker is on the far left, and Weaver, Ervin Santana and Joel Pineiro bridge the gap to Saunders on the right. In some sequence -- not necessarily this one -- they will take the mound and try to bring the franchise its sixth American League West title in seven years.
As the Los Angeles pitchers share insights and tips, encourage and support each other and perhaps strike up a friendly rivalry, some of the focus will fall on a pitcher who's no longer part of the mix. The better these guys fare, the less they'll have to hear about the inevitable John Lackey withdrawal pains.
Since 2002, when Lackey joined Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele, Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz in the rotation, he was a dominant presence in Anaheim. Lackey won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, averaged 33 starts and 210 innings over a five-year stretch, led the league with a 3.01 ERA in 2007 and was routinely praised by manager Mike Scioscia, his teammates and opponents for his "bulldog" tendencies on the mound.
When Lackey signed a five-year, $82.5 million contract with Boston, the dynamic suddenly changed. If you gave the Angels a buck every time they've heard that the team now lacks a true No. 1 starter, it would cover a lot of $2 Nassaus.
Scioscia, pitching coach Mike Butcher and the Angels' five starters all view the obsession with the team's lack of a designated ace as more a media creation than a legitimate concern.
"For me, it's not, 'You're the No. 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.' It's about winning. Period," Butcher said. "I don't want our guys focused on getting 200 innings. I want them getting 33 starts and trying to win 33 games. That's their mindset."
The Angels' starters have all enjoyed success to varying degrees. Saunders made the All-Star team in 2008 and is 33-14 over the past two seasons. Santana finished sixth in Cy Young Award balloting two years ago, when he struck out 214 batters in 219 innings.
Weaver has a record of 51-27 in four big league seasons. Kazmir led the American League with 239 strikeouts in 2007, and Pineiro re-established himself with a 15-12 record and 3.49 ERA under the Dave Duncan program in St. Louis last season.
One thing the Angels have is variety. The rotation consists of three righties and two lefties, Kazmir and Saunders. Weaver is a rangy 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, while Kazmir, listed at 6-feet, 190, is the most compact pitcher of the group.
For me, it's not, 'You're the No. 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.' It's about winning. Period. I don't want our guys focused on getting 200 innings. I want them getting 33 starts and trying to win 33 games.
-- Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher
Santana, whose fastball averaged 94.4 mph two years ago, is the hardest thrower, while Weaver and Pineiro traffic in the 89 mph range. Last year, Weaver had the most extreme fly-ball ratio in the majors, and Pineiro threw his sinker about 70 percent of the time to record the highest ratio of ground balls to fly balls in the game.
None of the five pitchers is as outwardly expressive as Lackey, whose bulldog bona fides were substantiated during a mound encounter with his manager during Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees in October. When Lackey looked up and saw Scioscia coming out to pull him from the game, the TV cameras caught him mouthing an epithet and pleading several times, "This [game] is mine."
A Lackey supporter might have viewed the emotional display as a sign of competitiveness, but you could make the case that Lackey was also putting his manager in a bind. Even Saunders, a friend of Lackey, questioned whether the gesture was proper baseball etiquette.
"John might have known it was his last game as an Angel and he wanted to go out on a good note," Saunders said. "He was consistent -- he pretty much wore his emotions on his sleeve no matter what the game was.
"But you still have to respect the manager and his decision. I was brought up not to show any emotion on the field regardless of how I do or what happens. I might talk to [Scioscia] in the locker room afterwards. On the field, there's no place for that."
The Angels' success this season could hinge on a pair of turnaround specials. After going 16-7 with a 3.49 ERA two years ago, Santana slipped to 8-8, 5.03 last season. His strikeout ratio dipped, his walks increased, and he allowed a whopping 24 home runs in 139 2/3 innings pitched. Santana claims he's healthy now after pitching with a partially torn elbow ligament last year, and he appears to have regained the zip on his fastball.
Kazmir, the Mets' first-round pick in 2002, came to Los Angeles from Tampa Bay via trade in August in what was essentially a salary dump for the Rays and a hedge against a Lackey departure on the part of the Angels.
Kazmir feels invigorated in Anaheim for two reasons: He hooked on with a new trainer and made it through a killer workout regimen in Houston in the offseason; and he's reunited with Butcher, his former pitching coach in Tampa Bay.
"He'll benefit me a lot," Kazmir said. "He saw me when I was doing good, when I was feeling right and throwing the ball max effort. Now that he sees me throwing like a robot, he can take a step back and say, 'This is what you need to do. This is what I remember."'
Early in camp, Kazmir worked with Butcher on staying back in his delivery, "letting it fly" and trying to avoid leaning forward to the point that his arm would drag. In Tampa Bay, Kazmir got into a nasty habit of running up huge early pitch counts and becoming a five-inning pitcher.
Scioscia is always coy about his Opening Day starter, but the consensus is that Weaver is the likely choice. The Angels have such a low-key group, no one is going to lobby for the assignment.
"Obviously, it would be a good thing to have happen, but at the same time, I think people put a little too much hype on it," Weaver said. "The only time you need a No. 1 guy is on Opening Day and for the playoffs."
Yes, the playoffs. When John Lackey was leading the staff, the Angels came to expect they would be playing baseball deep into October every year. Just because he's on the opposite side of the country, don't expect that to change.
|Joel Pineiro, who signed a two-year, $16 million deal in January, won 15 games and tossed 214 innings for the Cardinals last season.|
Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License To Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.