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Sunday, April 18, 2010
Santana crowns starters' revival

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

TORONTO -- Just when things were at their most chaotic around the Los Angeles Angels this month, with virtually every aspect of the team looking wild and unkempt, Joel Pineiro brought a measure of order.

He didn't walk a batter in his seven innings at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, setting a tone for an Angels rotation that has suddenly cleaned up its act and steered the season back on course. After a sluggish first eight games -- in which the Angels sunk to 2-6 -- the deep, consistent starting pitching has finally arrived.

Santana
Ervin Santana gave up just four hits in his sixth career complete game Sunday.

The Angels have won four of their last five games. In those wins, the starters have pitched an average of nearly eight innings, walked one batter combined and had a collective 1.16 ERA. You don't have to be Bill James to see what those numbers lead to: a re-energized team.

Ervin Santana crowned the Angels' awakening by taming a powerful, if jumpy, Toronto Blue Jays lineup for nine innings in a 3-1 win Sunday. He gave up just four hits in his sixth career complete game. Until he hung a slider to Adam Lind that went for a home run in the ninth inning, he was on a roll as good as any he has ever ridden.

Santana has four career shutouts, including the Angels' division clincher against Texas on Sept. 28, 2009.

"Our pitching is going to give us chances to do what we did today. We had to scratch and claw for some runs and made them hold up because of Ervin's effort," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Not having to use guys in the bullpen obviously is a bonus."

Now, if the Angels can only get fifth starter Scott Kazmir ironed out, they'll have the rotation of "five No. 2s" they've been boasting about since the early days of spring training.

Catcher Jeff Mathis has been closer to it than anyone. With the exception of Jered Weaver, who has pitched well in all three starts, Mathis has seen a staff that simply needed a week to get its stuff together. At least, that's his opinion.

"You come out, everyone's excited the first start or two," Mathis said. "They're starting to get settled down, they're coming out and getting their command together and filling up the strike zone."

As Santana noted, the Jays "swing at everything," which allowed him to practically hand it over to the autopilot at times. He pinpointed his fastball to both sides of the plate and had command of his changeup and slider for the first time this year. It was pitching by the numbers. He needed 12 pitches to get through the fifth and sixth innings. Santana (1-2) said he could have gone an inning or two more after he threw 106 pitches.

"He had plenty left," Scioscia said. "That's encouraging."

Until Lind's home run, the Angels' relievers had spent the entire game sitting around in their right-field bullpen. Fernando Rodney got a call and jumped up. He had started playing catch by the time Vernon Wells lined out to Reggie Willits in center field to end the game. Good starting pitching makes it easier on everybody.

Trends

What is it about Hideki Matsui that makes him so clutch? If you ask a fellow hitter, it's his ability to stay relaxed in the tensest situations. Let the pitcher get nervous and make the mistake.

"Exactly," Mathis said.

If you stand behind him during batting practice and look at his hands, Matsui seems to be applying as much pressure to the bat as he would if he were clutching a small bird. He doesn't look much more ruffled with runners on base. The hardest-working part of his body might be his brain.

"There's definitely a focus about Hideki," Scioscia said. "He knows situations, he knows what he's trying to do. He's gauging pitchers, looking for things."

Matsui, last October's World Series MVP for the New York Yankees, had the two key hits for the Angels. He sliced an RBI double to left-center off Jays ace Ricky Romero to snap a scoreless tie in the sixth. Then, he hit virtually the same ball off another lefty, reliever Scott Downs, to spark a rally in the ninth.

Matsui has eight RBIs and five of them have given the Angels a lead. On the offensive side, he's been a one-man cure-all to the Angels' clutch-hitting problem. The rest of the Angels' lineup went 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position Sunday.

"At certain times, I'm waiting for a certain pitch," Matsui said. "I'm patient until I get it."

By the numbers

Bobby Abreu is one stolen base away from becoming the only active player with 350 steals and 250 home runs. Abreu has hit 268 career home runs. He went 0-for-4 Sunday.

Quote of the day

"I threw less pitches, because they swing at everything, so I know I had something left." -- Santana on the Blue Jays.

Looking ahead

The Angels continue to stay out of their division when they host the Detroit Tigers for four games beginning Monday. Traditionally, the league has loaded teams' schedules with division games early, in the middle and late in a season. According to Scioscia, that's how it should be.

But this year, the Angels play just three division games (versus Oakland) in April and the upcoming 17 games are against non-division opponents. Their next division games begin May 7 in Seattle.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.