As usual, our buddy Mark Saxon at ESPNLosAngeles.com answered some quick questions about the Angels to help prepare us for this big three-game series. Since the last time he answered questions for us, much has changed (and that was just last week). Here goes:
Q: Was Mark Trumbo's homer the biggest hit of the season for the Angels? Was that the moment that pushed this team to this 6-game winning streak or is that overstating it?
MS: I don't think that's overstating it at all, but as always in a pennant race, the situation evolves so fast that you don't know until the end what the biggest hit is. Until Trumbo's home run, it looked like the biggest hit of their season would be Ian Kinsler's bloop single to left off Ervin Santana the night before or Mike Napoli's home run off Jered Weaver a little earlier in that same game. But you're right in that, more than any other single moment I can ever recall, everything pivoted on that one swing. The world changed (OK, now I'm getting too dramatic). It probably helped that Baltimore was the next team the Angels played.
Q: What do you think of the move to rearrange the rotation and start Santana and Weaver on short rest? Were you surprised the Angels didn't change things up for the last series?
MS: Yes and yes. I think to avoid the fourth and fifth starters is a smart decision at this point of the season and probably would have been a smart decision in the previous series, too. One thing to remember, though, is that the Angels had faith that Garrett Richards would have a bounce-back game. They couldn't have predicted he would get hurt in the first inning. You could see Tyler Chatwood's bad outing coming for weeks.
As to pitching on three days' rest, history shows it doesn't work very well in the post-season, but this is just a one-time thing. Both guys got extra rest before their last starts due to an off-day (and Weaver had a seven-day break a couple of weeks ago due to his suspension), so it's fairly good timing. Ask me again in three days. How's that?
Q: The Angels are hitting over .300 during this 6-game winning streak. Who have been the big producers with the bats?
MS: Torii Hunter is playing like he's 23 years old again. Let me re-phrase that. He's running like he's 23 again, but hitting like he's 36. He's been improving as a hitter in his 30s, by being more selective (or slightly less-aggressive). He has been the main force, but youngsters like Trumbo and Peter Bourjos also have had pivotal hits. Even Vernon Wells and Jeff Mathis were a big part of the Angels' last win over Chicago. When that happens, you know something's going on. This team's problem all year has been holes in the lineup (Wells' spot and the catcher's specifically), so establishing depth is pivotal. This is not a one-guy-carries-the-team type of club, as it was when Vladimir Guerrero went crazy in 2004.
Q: Defense was not a strong suit for the Angels in the last Rangers series, but has been most of the year. How has the defense looked the last week?
MS: Yeah, that was the weirdest part of that series for me. It was as if they just weren't focused in that game. I think it had a lot to do with those short starts from the first two pitchers. It just set a tone that was hard to change. Here's a short scouting report on the Angels' defense: If it's hit in the air to center or right field, it's probably going to be caught. If Bourjos doesn't win a Gold Glove, there has to be an investigation.
Hunter deserves one, too, though Ichiro's career body of work might cost him even if it really shouldn't. Wells is solid in left. Erick Aybar is phenomenal at shortstop; not quite as acrobatic as Elvis Andrus, but a little more experienced. The rest of the infield is adequate or maybe a little better than that. The catchers vary. Hank Conger has tended to struggle throwing runners out. Jeff Mathis is as
solid as they come (defensively). To summarize, they usually play sharply in the field and they really have to in order to win.
Q: How is the Angels' bullpen? It was a mess when the Rangers left.
MS: It's the most vulnerable spot heading into this series for sure. That's probably another reason Mike Scioscia is pitching his best guys on short rest. Scott Downs hasn't pitched in four games because of a slightly strained hamstring. Now, hearing that probably doesn't sound like a big deal, but he has been the Angels' best reliever, hands down, and the only guy who looks capable of pitching the eighth inning in pressure spots. He says he'll be available tonight. We'll see. Fernando Rodney is a disaster. It seems like he issues two walks before he even leaves the bullpen. The rest of the bullpen has been a shuttle between Triple-A Salt Lake and the big leagues, nobody grabbing hold of a secure job.
Q: What does your gut tell you about this series and the rest of the season? Who wins the AL West and why?
MS: The only thing my gut is telling me at the moment has to do with the barbecue I had at about 10 o'clock last night. But I will predict this: It won't be a sweep. When these two teams meet, it rarely is. They are exceptionally well-matched and nobody seems to have a mental edge. As we saw in the last series, momentum can turn on a dime when they're playing each other. I also will stand by my prediction that Texas wins the AL West. This is the one caveat, Rangers fans: The Angels have been surprising me all year.