<
>

Baseball's best regional rivalry hums along

ANAHEIM, Calif. -– It was a one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning and the leadoff hitter had just singled and stolen second base. In the box, with a hitter’s count, stood Mike Trout, who – depending which numbers you favor -– profiles, roughly, as either the second coming of Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle’s forgotten grandson.

Behind him was Albert Pujols, his scowling swagger back with 21 home runs and 70 RBIs, and, after that, Josh Hamilton, diminished but still frightening with that big, lumberjack, left-handed swing.

Angel Stadium was sold out, and Kenley Jansen was feeling every ounce of what this rivalry has become.

“It felt like a playoff atmosphere with all the adrenaline I had,” Jansen said. “I had to maintain my composure, keep it down but stay aggressive, control the game.”

One of the offshoots of shifting the Houston Astros to the American League has been gems like this series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels, four straight games split between two vibrant venues, a little bit of October magic dust sprinkled on early August. When both teams are talented and jelling, as they are in 2014, it’s as good as it gets -- at least until it actually happens in October.

Jansen was the better man Wednesday. He struck out Trout with a 96 mph fastball right down the middle and Pujols hit a lazy fly ball, and Hamilton, too, went down swinging. So Jansen ended up with his 32nd save. Had Trout ended up with his 26th home run, everything would have felt different for Southern Californians who pay close attention to baseball. It’s kind of how these things are drawn up, right?

The Dodgers’ 2-1 win easily could have gone the Angels’ way, much as Tuesday’s 5-4 Dodger win could have. The Dodgers have scored seven runs, the Angels have scored 10 and the Dodgers lead the series two games to one. As Dodgers manager Don Mattingly pointed out, it wasn’t entirely a playoff atmosphere, because each teams’ fans infested the other’s stadium in large numbers, but it was closer to that than a sleepy midweek series with the Brewers in town, that’s for sure.

What you also get in October, or what you remember more clearly in October, are unsung heroes. You get performances like Dan Haren’s on Wednesday. A proud veteran who had called his previous form “embarrassing” took a perfect game into the sixth inning and pitched deeper into a game than he had since June.

He worked and he worked until he and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt found the adjustments that stuck. Wednesday, it was a combination of returning to the delivery that had been his bread and butter in his glory years, the mid-leg kick pause that he said allowed him to “hold and gather,” and probably mixed a bit more deception into his delivery. He also featured more curveballs than he ever had, keeping the Angels just confused enough to hit the ball on less-productive areas of their bats.

One thing the Dodgers know about Haren: Whatever he has, he’s going to give it to you.

And afterward, Mattingly discussed the reality of the situation, why Haren and Josh Beckett have been holding down their rotation spots despite wobbly outings piling up these past couple of months: The Dodgers simply don’t have pitchers ready at the upper levels of the minor leagues.

“You just don’t pick guys off trees. We’ve been building our system and working on building our system up, but we’re really not sitting there with three or four kids throwing 96, 97 just tearing it up down there, knocking on the door at this point,” Mattingly said. “We’re going to get there, and that’s when you have to make decisions like that, but we can’t sit here and say, 'We’re sitting here with starters galore and lots of choices ...'

“At least for tonight, it’s a start where [Haren] ends up with a smile on his face and you’re just really happy for him.”

Asked if he needed an outing like that, Haren said, “I think that’s probably the understatement of the year.”

So, the Dodgers have a little more confidence in their pitching depth going into these final two months of a pennant race with the San Francisco Giants, their lead still a fairly robust 2 ½ games. The Angels, still 22 games over .500, are far from downcast after losing two one-run games.

It’s been a while since baseball was this much fun in and around Los Angeles.