Commentary

Angels work to pitch out of a jam

Updated: September 3, 2012, 1:17 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Zack Greinke prefers not to get too far ahead of himself. He thinks about the next batter or the next inning, and then on off days, his next opponent.

[+] EnlargeJered Weaver
Jim Rogash/Getty Images)Jered Weaver had a 4.91 ERA in August, but his past two starts have been solid.

But when he stepped into the Los Angeles Angels' clubhouse for the first time July 29, Greinke's thoughts grew a bit bigger.

"I thought our team was in great shape," Greinke said. "And we were going to just cruise the rest of the way."

He wasn't the only one.

Many thought the Angels had one of the best starting rotations in baseball before their midseason acquisition of Greinke from the Milwaukee Brewers. They'd added the top free-agent pitcher on the market, C.J. Wilson, over the winter to a staff that already included a perennial Cy Young contender Jered Weaver and perennial 200-innings eater in Dan Haren.

Adding Greinke, the AL Cy Young winner in 2009, gave the Angels an embarrassment of pitching riches.

But what was supposed to happen and what the Angels pitchers actually did in August never aligned. Instead of dominating, the pitchers disappointed. After logging a team ERA of 3.33 from May through June, the Angels had a 5.24 team ERA from July 1 through the end of August.

Angels starters had a 4.98 ERA from the end of the All-Star break through Sept. 1, while the bullpen had a 5.56 ERA.

In other words, they were all breaking pretty badly.

"I think everyone has put a lot pressure on themselves because everyone wants to be the guy to turn things around," Haren, who had a 4.56 ERA in August, said last week. "And a lot of times, the more you press the less you get."

It would be easy if it were as simple as that, if what caused an entire staff to seemingly lose its way for nearly six weeks was a garden variety case of trying too hard.

But what ailed the Angels in August was far more systemic. Too many pitchers seemed to be affected. Too many games ended up the same way. The Angels' pitchers were just off. All of them.

Tim Salmon gets paid to discuss such things as an analyst for Angels broadcasts on Fox Sports West. This one took him a while. And even now, it's just a theory. But the more Salmon watched, the more he talked to the pitchers, the more he saw their body language, the more obvious it became to him what was going on.

"Honestly, I think in this case the dog days might have caught up with their pitching staff after carrying the load as much as they had to getting out of the gate," Salmon said. "It's not just that they had to pitch an inning longer or get a few more outs, it's that they were stressful outs. They were stressful innings because the offense was taking so much heat at not being able to do anything. There was just so little margin for error."

Those would be the pre-Mike Trout days in Anaheim, when the Angels' offense averaged just 3.7 runs a game and the pitching staff went into each game hoping for something, anything in the way of run support. Ervin Santana has the saddest story to tell, having received no run support in five consecutive starts between April 13 and May 4. He lost all of those decisions.

Weaver and Haren landed on the disabled list while Wilson skidded to one of the worst stretches of his career, finishing with an unsightly 7.99 ERA in August.

Weaver and Haren are back now, but neither has been as consistently dominant as they have been historically. Weaver had a 4.91 ERA in August while Haren took to throwing two bullpen workouts in between starts just to find his comfort zone again.

"I've been kind of searching for a lot of things mechanically," Haren said. "My back is fine, but I got into a lot of bad habits. I'm just trying to work through it. There's some starts where everything kind of clicks. There's others where I've just felt like a mess, even since I've come off the DL. …

"But it's coming around. I think I have a lot of good ball left in me."

The numbers showed just how much the staff was grinding.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Angels starters averaged 102.2 pitches in 6.4 innings a game in April and 96.2 pitches in 6.2 innings a game in May. But once things started getting ugly in July and August, the strain started to show as the starters took more pitches to get fewer outs (96.7 pitches to get through 5.7 innings in July and 99.7 pitches to get through 6.0 innings in August).

"I can just tell you as an offensive player," Salmon said. "You go through spurts where you have to just grind it out, like 'We've got to score six runs a game just to be in it.' After a few weeks of that, that can really wear on you. You have to figure a way to catch your breath and get your second wind."

It appears the Angels may have done that in the past week or so. The staff allowed just 12 runs during a recent five-game winning streak that began with a sweep of the Red Sox last week. Weaver had solid starts against the Red Sox and Mariners. Wilson won for the first time since June 26. Greinke settled into a groove and won his third game in four tries, saying afterward, "I was already doing so bad so … I'm just kind of pitching and letting things happen."

Haren was masterful over seven innings of a 9-1 win in Seattle on Friday night, and Santana outdueled Felix Hernandez on Saturday.

But if the Angels' pitchers taxed themselves so much in the early months of the season when the offense was struggling, will catching a second wind be enough?

Pitching coach Mike Butcher thinks so.

"We had a good first half," Butcher said. "We've had a little bump in the road. But if you look at the track record of these guys they're going to come around and pitch up to their capabilities."

Neither Butcher nor manager Mike Scioscia wanted to blame all of the staff's struggles in August on fatigue. That's part of it, Butcher said. But that's not all of it. And it's not a unique situation to the Angels.

"Sometimes one guy will be fatigued, maybe two. But it seemed like it all kind of came together for us at once," Butcher said. "But it's about grinding 'em all out and trying to get through a phase of the season."

Getting through that isn't just about catching a second wind, Butcher explained. When you're fatigued, you can develop some bad habits. Same goes for when you're pitching in a lot of close games. In a close game, you might not challenge a dangerous hitter with your fastball in an 0-2 count, just to see if he can hit it. Because if he does, well, the game might not be close anymore.

So instead of the fastball, you bring out the breaking ball earlier than you normally might. Then you might start nibbling at the corners of the plate, making sure not to give a hitter too good of a pitch.

And instead of coming out after six innings, you might insist on staying in past the seventh or eighth to preserve a small lead.

All of these are small things. But added together over an extended period of time, it can create a larger problem, one that reared its ugly head just as the Angels' offense started humming, leading the majors with 5.4 runs scored per game since June.

"When things weren't clicking early on, it puts a little more pressure on you to make pitches," Butcher said. "You try to get deep into the game and at times you start nibbling around the strike zone.

"So the biggest thing is just to get these guys back on track and staying focused on what they can do, not what they couldn't do. Getting back to being aggressive, controlling counts and pitching their game. I think we've gotten back to that."

Greinke does too.

"We pitched bad for a while," he said. "But it seems better in the past week and a half, and if that continues, the way our defense and offense is, the bullpen seems to be doing better, we should have a good run in us."

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