Commentary

Angels pitchers in survival of fittest

As the pennant race winds down, Scioscia figures to rely heavily on his big three

Updated: September 8, 2011, 1:06 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Football games that stay close in the fourth quarter often go to the team with the better-conditioned defense. As the clock ticks down on this baseball season, whoever makes the most stops in the next few weeks just might win the AL West.

This may not be a pennant race so much as a survival test.

The Los Angeles Angels' pitching staff is fraying a little at the top, with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana all showing varying signs of strain.

[+] EnlargeJered Weaver
John Cordes/Icon SMI Jered Weaver admittedly says he hasn't been sharp lately, but he also says he feels fine.

The Texas Rangers, 2 1/2 games up after the Angels' 3-1 win over the Seattle Mariners, are having problems with the three younger guys at the back of their rotation, with ERAs starting to creep up after a summer-long Texas heat wave. The Angels are hoping endurance could be their edge.

"So much goes into the end of the year, whether it's adrenaline or these guys making pitches with cobwebs and dust," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "They may not have as much gas in their tank, but they're still making pitches and getting outs."

Only Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez have thrown more pitches in the majors this season than Haren. Weaver also is in the top five and Santana is 13th. Each of the Angels' big three has seen his effectiveness wane to some degree in recent starts. Weaver and Santana haven't been quite as sharp since they went on three days' rest two weekends ago in Texas.

Weaver has had trouble throwing his dominant slider lately. Haren barely touched 90 mph in his most recent start.

"Obviously, my stuff hasn't been as sharp in the last couple games as it has been," Weaver said. "Maybe there was a little wall that I hit, but physically I feel fine. I don't know if it's one of those dead arm-type things. I think my body is kind of telling me that I've thrown a lot of pitches, but it's nothing that noticeable."

While Scioscia appears intent on riding his three horses either into the ground or into October, the Rangers' Ron Washington is laying off the whip.

The Angels might take advantage of off days to use their three best starters in as many as 14 of their final 19 games. You can't blame Scioscia. Clearly, that's what has gotten him here. His bullpen is unreliable, his offense hit-or-miss. In games started by Weaver, Haren or Santana, the Angels are 53-36. In games started by anyone else, they're 25-29.

Meanwhile, Washington gave Alexi Ogando a start off on Monday, replacing him with Scott Feldman, after seeing Ogando go 2-3 with a 6.75 ERA in his previous seven appearances. Ogando, 27, pitched 41 2/3 innings as a reliever last year. He already has thrown 155 innings this season. The previous week, Washington skipped Matt Harrison, 25, who has a 5.40 ERA since the start of August. Colby Lewis has a 9.39 ERA in his last three starts.

"It's youth," Washington told ESPNDallas.com. "You're talking about young starters who haven't done this before. They are being asked to shoulder the load and they aren't used to it. We're trying to step back, breath out and then get them back going again."

The Angels pitchers aren't as young and they're more accomplished -- with six All-Star appearances between them -- but experience may not be their biggest edge. The Pacific Ocean might be. The cool breezes it produces reach Anaheim by the time most of them begin their work days. The Angels got a taste of Texas heat on their last road trip. Temperatures have been in the 100s there for most of the Rangers' first pitches over the last two months.

"I heard they had guys taking IV's during games," Haren said. "It's hard to stay hydrated, you lose a lot of weight, but they have young guys and I think they can probably put up with it because they haven't been doing it 10 or 15 years."

[+] EnlargeDan Haren
Jim Cowsert/US PresswireDan Haren says his body is conditioned to throw as many innings as he does.

Southern California is in the midst of a heat wave and the game-time temperature Wednesday was a dry 87 degrees.

"I think that's our advantage, just because of the weather we've thrown in as opposed to the weather they've thrown in," Weaver said. "I don't know how those guys do it over there. I definitely couldn't make it through a whole season of pitching in that weather. My body just couldn't adapt to that kind of stuff."

Because Weaver and Santana are on pace to break their personal highs for pitches thrown, nobody really knows how their bodies will hold up. Haren has done this six-month shuffle before. He was a workhorse while pitching in Oakland but became a Clydesdale in Arizona. He led the majors in pitches thrown last season and was second in 2007.

"Now, I would feel weird not throwing that many innings," Haren said. "My body is conditioned to do that. I'm not the most violent thrower, I rely mostly on command, I'm not relying on power. I think I have the right frame. I'm a pretty big guy, so you would expect me to hold up through seasons."

They'll be tired if they carry the Angels to where they want to go. They're probably tired now. But as they say, you can rest when you die, or at least when your team's hopes have flickered out.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.