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Wednesday, May 5, 2010
Updated: May 9, 9:49 PM ET
Angels battle with mounting pressure

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

Ervin Santana
Angels catcher Mike Napoli, left, and manager Mike Scioscia, center, stand on the mound as pitcher Ervin Santana, right, leaves the baseball game in the seventh inning against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday.
SEATTLE -- There are signs here and there that the Los Angeles Angels' clubhouse is beginning to splinter under the pressure of a disappointing season.

If you paid close attention to some of the comments recently, you can hear whispers of finger-pointing back and forth between pitchers and position players. After an 11-6 loss at Fenway Park three days earlier, Angels right fielder Bobby Abreu said the hitters just had to score more runs because "right now they're having a lot of trouble on the mound. That's the way I see it."

After Sunday's 8-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners -- which snapped Seattle out of an awful batting slump and an eight-game losing streak -- Ervin Santana pointed the finger right back at Angels hitters.

"I think we're trying to do too much with runners in scoring position. We're not doing the same as last year," Santana said. "Last year, we had a lot of fun, just went up there and had fun. This year, we have too much pressure on."

The Angels batted .225 on the 10-game road trip they just finished. They lost eight of those games.

Asked if the same applied to the pitching staff, which has the third-worst ERA in the American League by the way, Santana shook his head no.

"Not really," he said. "We go out there and do our best. We keep the score low, we try. Our offense has to refocus and just have fun."

Santana (1-3) clearly was peeved at having zero run support Sunday, but he was the one who seemed to snap under the pressure. A scoreless tie exploded into a romp in the fourth inning when, with two outs, Santana fell apart. He walked two batters, gave up a three-run home run to somebody named Josh Wilson and another solo shot to a guy named Michael Saunders. To find out who those guys were a week ago, you would have needed the Tacoma Rainiers roster in hand.

The way the Angels hitters appeared against soft-tossing lefty Jason Vargas (3-2), that fourth inning looked like the lights-out moment.

"Two walks, that was the game right there," Santana said.

The Angels got a short oasis from a miserable trip when they won the first two games of this series, but now those wins look like a mirage. The Mariners were stuck in one of the great cold spells since the last ice age and none of the Angels' core issues were resolved.

They still walk way too many batters. Pile seven walks Saturday onto the Angels' league-high total of 134 and it's becoming a small mountain of free passes.

Catcher Mike Napoli is an absolute mess when it comes to throwing out runners and other teams are on to him. Ichiro Suzuki stole three bases off Napoli Saturday and Ryan Langerhans swiped one, too. Napoli has thrown out only five of the 28 baserunners (18 percent) who have tried to steal on him this year. It's rare when he doesn't bounce a throw to second or drag it to the shortstop side, a no-no.

He claims he's not frustrated, but he seemed a little testy when I asked him about it.

"You've just got to play the game. I mean, I want to throw runners out," Napoli said. "It sucks not throwing runners out."

Napoli did make a nice snap throw from his knees to pick off Wilson straying too far from the third-base bag in the sixth.

And despite what Santana thinks, the pitching is far from crisp overall. The middle relievers throw kerosene on the fire virtually every time they appear -- Brian Stokes did it again with another shabby effort -- and the starters have been far from consistent. Manager Mike Scioscia said Santana's outing was "better than the numbers show," but in a way, it was actually worse.

In addition to Napoli's pick-off, Angels outfielders threw out two Seattle runners at the plate. Santana's ERA could be uglier than the 4.40 it is now.

In the big picture, two victories in three games against a stuck-in-the-mud opponent does not a rebirth make. The Angels still aren't playing up to their capabilities and the last thing they need is for players to start blaming each other. That's the way seasons go spiraling down a toilet bowl.

Scioscia is still waiting for a stretch of games in which the Angels play so well, he recognizes the team he thought he had in spring training. That hasn't happened in the first 33.

"We have to start getting momentum going and moving ahead," Scioscia said. "You're not going to win every game, but the idea is to bring your level of play to the field and win as often as you can. That didn't happen today."

No, that didn't happen today or in seven of the nine games preceding. But why? Depends if you ask a pitcher or a hitter.

BOTTOM FEEDING

Absent Hideki Matsui and Torii Hunter, the bottom of the Angels' lineup had a fall-off-a-cliff feel to it.

The final four batters -- Napoli, Brandon Wood, Robb Quinlan and Reggie Willits -- entered Sunday a combined 32-for-176 (.182) with three home runs and 10 RBIs this season. Oh, they also had combined for 57 strikeouts, roughly a strikeout every third at-bat.

How'd they do? Kind of how you'd expect: 2-for-12 with two strikeouts and 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position. Willits walked and scored on a bizarre strikeout-wild-pitch-fielder's-choice scenario in the eighth inning for the Angels' only run.

The Mariners' last four hitters had similarly ugly numbers coming in, but Langerhans, Wilson, Saunders and Adam Moore combined to go 6-for-13 with two home runs, six RBIs and five runs scored.

SCENE AND HEARD

The Angels watched the end on the center-field scoreboard here: Oakland A's pitcher Dallas Braden became the 19th pitcher to throw a perfect game Sunday in a 4-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays. His next stop is Angel Stadium next weekend.

Depending on if the A's give him an extra day of rest (they have Monday off) he would face the Angels either Friday or Saturday.

Braden is 1-3 with a 4.36 ERA in five starts against the Angels. Like Vargas, he's a soft-throwing lefty.

"He's a guy who's also not overpowering, but he definitely changes speeds well," Scioscia said. "Obviously, he had a career day today. That's a terrific accomplishment against a good offensive team."

QUOTE OF THE DAY

"Some guys on our staff are having a lot of trouble getting balls into zones." -- Scioscia on the Angels' league-high 141 walks.

LOOKING AHEAD

One trend has to end this week.

Not only are the Angels running into a team that had been nearly unstoppable on the road this year until Sunday's perfect game, but they're facing Tampa Bay's three best starting pitchers, starting Monday. Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann and David Price are a combined 11-2 and Niemann's 2.23 ERA is the worst of the bunch.

Tampa's hot streak came to an end with their second straight loss in Oakland on Sunday. Still, the Rays have the best road record in the majors at 13-3.

Angels fans do have a little hope this week, however, as the Rays have crumbled at Angel Stadium historically. They're 1-13 there since 2006 and 6-34 there in their last 40 games. When was the last time Tampa won a series in Anaheim? That would be their inaugural season, 1998.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.