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Sunday, June 13, 2010
Angels get a boost of self-esteem

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- They were a team riddled with doubts when they packed their bags in Anaheim on a Sunday evening bound for a lengthy flight to the Midwest. Exactly two weeks later and about 30 miles north, they packed those same blue-and-red duffle bags again for a bus ride home.

The souvenir of their longest trip of the year was a healthy serving of self-esteem. The Los Angeles Angels managed to hold on for a 6-5 win at Dodger Stadium on Sunday. It wasn't pretty, but it capped an 11-3 road trip on which they went from a disappointing wreck to a potential wrecking ball in the American League.

When the Angels left for Kansas City on May 30, they had just witnessed a horrific, freak injury to their best hitter, Kendry Morales. They were floundering under .500, playing like lightweights despite a heavyweight payroll. They just kept waiting for the team they thought they had to show up, but it was stubbornly slow to pull into the station.

Torii Hunter
Torii Hunter, hitting an RBI double, said the Angels are having a lot more fun lately.

"We always saw the potential," manager Mike Scioscia said.

Now, after winning a series in Kansas City, sweeping in Seattle and Los Angeles and splitting in Oakland, they return to Anaheim after having scorched the Earth in two time zones.

Their confidence, so surprisingly fragile for two months, seems to grow by the day. It always seems to happen as the cool days of spring yield to warmer weather, and some National League teams start popping onto the schedule.

"It's like night and day, to be honest with you," Torii Hunter said. "It's totally different. The defense is different, the offense is different, the pitching is different. Right now, we're having a lot of fun. Winning cures everything."

You can't tell the Angels the National League isn't the weaker league. No matter how you cut the numbers, the Angels have used Interleague play as their vehicle for AL West domination. Going back to the start of 2007, they're 42-18 against the National League. That's .700 baseball.

The Interleague portion of the schedule usually acts as a catalyst to the Angels' season. Last year, they were flopping around at 29-29 before Interleague play began, they won 14 of 18 against the NL and eventually wound up winning 97 games and a playoff series.

It was a similar story in each of the two previous seasons. The Angels, whose 15-4 record since May 25 is the best in the majors, hope it's happening again in 2010. They play their next 12 games against the National League.

Sunday was a tidy argument for Scioscia's assertion that the team is better off with Brian Fuentes as the closer. His potential heir apparent, Fernando Rodney, made a mess of things in the eighth inning and Fuentes was relatively crisp in the ninth. He struck out Matt Kemp and got a double-play ball from Rafael Furcal to close out his 10th save in 13 chances. Fuentes hasn't blown a save since May 26.

"A lot of it has to do with fastball command," Scioscia said. "And I think he's got a little more life on his pitches."

Scene and heard

After Jered Weaver pitched in a game against his older brother, Jeff, on June 20 of last year, he said, "Hopefully, we don't have to go through that again."

They did, and it happened less than a year later. Jeff Weaver entered the game in the third inning for a faltering Carlos Monasterios and pitched 2 1/3 innings. The difference was this time they were in a National League ballpark, so they had to bat against one another. That made it even more stressful.

Jered Weaver, who improved to 6-3, said it was slightly "weirder" hitting against Jeff than pitching to him. He hit a slow roller to second. Jeff Weaver struck out.

Jered's strikeout of Jeff was the first brotherly K in baseball since 1996, when Pedro Martinez got Ramon twice in one game.

"I saw him down there warming up and I couldn't help but start to giggle a little bit, because you knew it was going to happen," Jered Weaver said.

Jeff is seven years older than Jered and, because of that, they were not close when they were growing up in Simi Valley.

"I've never faced him, except probably as a 5-year-old playing Whiffle ball," Jered said. No hitter had faced his brother in a major-league game since Julio Lugo batted against Ruddy Lugo on Sept. 26, 2007 in Boston. Ruddy pitched briefly for the Oakland A's.

Quote of the day

"When you first look at the schedule before the road trip, you're like, 'Wow, this is going to be a long one.'" -- Hunter on the 14-game trip.

Looking ahead

The Angels have seen Joe Saunders (5-6, 4.35 ERA) got on a roll before. When he does, he usually piles up wins. It happened at the end of last season and it appears to be happening now, entering Monday night's start at Angel Stadium against the Milwaukee Brewers. Saunders has pitched two complete games in his last six starts and won four of his last five decisions while putting up a 2.63 ERA. A few weeks ago, Saunders was stuck in the worst slump of his career.

"When he gets on a roll, he normally gives you a chance to win every time out," Scioscia said. The Angels face ex-Dodger Randy Wolf (4-6, 5.31). This will be only the third series the Angels have played against the Brewers since Milwaukee went to the National League in 1998. The Angels swept a series in Milwaukee in 2002 and lost two of three at Angel Stadium in 2004.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.