Grueling as pushing your way through a four-city, 14-game road trip might seem, the Los Angeles Angels might be in the midst of their first golden opportunity of 2010.
After dealing with the second-hardest schedule in baseball for five weeks, the Angels have finally landed on a gentle downhill grade. They've beaten the Kansas City Royals in two of three games so far, most recently Wednesday's 7-2 decision at Kauffman Stadium.
While the Angels are in a relatively breezy stretch of schedule -- they leave Kansas City on Thursday night to face the frigid bats of the Seattle Mariners -- the top of their division has to fend off pit bulls. The Texas Rangers face an upcoming series with the class of the league, the Tampa Bay Rays. After they finish with the Boston Red Sox, the Oakland A's have to contend with the first-place Minnesota Twins.
Amazingly, after all the teeth-gnashing and fibula snapping of the first two months, the Angels are only 2 1/2 games out of first place and 1 1/2 games out of second.
Of course, this team has yet to make a run this season, so who's to say they're about to come charging?
If you look closely, there are signs of steady progress, but no flashing-neon signs of it. Manager Mike Scioscia has been making changes on a piecemeal basis and most of the tweaks are working out. He swapped out a few struggling relievers for a few fresh arms from Triple-A and things have gotten a little better. The newest addition to the group, Francisco Rodriguez has given up one hit and no runs in 4 1/3 innings this year. The other young arm down there, Trevor Bell, has a 2.70 ERA. Scot Shields still isn't getting results, but he swears he's throwing the ball better.
Scioscia appears to have crossed a significant bridge with his lineup Wednesday night. He said in spring training that Erick Aybar would be given the first shot at leading off. After giving him a third of the season to figure it out, Scioscia finally has given up. Aybar started 52 of the Angels' first 55 games in the leadoff spot, but he wasn't there Wednesday.
Scioscia went with Maicer Izturis and told reporters in Kansas City that it wasn't a one-day thing. Aybar is batting .238 and has a .310 on-base percentage. Only Juan Pierre of the Chicago White Sox has a worse on-base percentage than Aybar among AL leadoff men. What's scary is that Angels' No. 2 hitters have an even lower on-base percentage.
Much like wayward children, the Angels don't seem to set the table well. Asked on a scale of one to 10 how big a problem the lack of table-setting has been, Scioscia told reporters, "It's an 11."
By the numbers
Last week, Bobby Abreu admitted he's motivated to keep playing, in part, by his accumulating numbers. He told ESPNLosAngeles.com last week that his goal is to stick around until he gets 3,000 hits, which would require him to play into his early 40s.
Abreu, 36, hit a major milestone with his ground-rule double off Kyle Davies in the first inning Wednesday. It was Abreu's 500th double. He's one of only five active players to hit that milestone (Ivan Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Garret Anderson and Todd Helton are the others), but it puts Abreu in even more rare territory than that.
One of these days life will get easier for Jered Weaver. In the meantime, he seems to get paired against a Cy Young contender every time he takes the mound. That seems to be the main reason he has been stuck on four wins for nearly a month.
Weaver (4-2, 3.01 ERA) meets 2009 Cy Young winner Zack Greinke (1-6, 3.39) Thursday afternoon. Both pitchers deserved better fates their last times out. Weaver gave up only one unearned run Saturday against the Seattle Mariners but didn't get the win primarily because Felix Hernandez was busy out-pitching him. Greinke gave up one run in six innings but continued to get no run support and took his sixth loss.
By the way, Weaver figures to be matched up against Hernandez again next Tuesday in Seattle. It would be the aces' third time starting opposite each other this season.
Mark Saxon, who reported from Los Angeles, covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.