Angels rise with homegrown rotation

TEMPE, Ariz. -- It's probably a sign of a healthy rivalry that Dan Haren and Jered Weaver didn't particularly like C.J. Wilson at first. Frankly, Haren says, he didn't like Weaver much either when they were in opposite dugouts.

Now, from a similar place they've arrived at a similar place. This spring, three of the best pitchers in the American League have been learning how much they have in common while getting a sense of how far they can carry their team.

"There was a couple-day period where it was a little bit weird [with Wilson]," Haren said, "but once you go into battle with the guys, into the grind of the season, go on the road, have a tough series, get on the airplane, you really bond fast.

"That's what's so satisfying about winning in the end. It's an eight-month journey and, when you come out on top, that's why everyone pops champagne and hugs and everything. It's so difficult."

This 2012 Los Angeles Angels season is generating hyper-drive excitement as Opening Day approaches, largely because superstar slugger Albert Pujols is now an Angel and stalled slugger Kendrys Morales is moving forward again. But if the Angels turn out to be as good as many people think they will, it will be because they have the best rotation in the American League.

Unlike most teams' cores, assembled from multiple countries, states and cities, this one has common roots. Wilson, Weaver and Haren -- who had three of the top 11 ERAs in the AL last year -- grew up along a 75-mile ribbon of traffic-clogged freeway in Southern California.

Haren (Pepperdine) and Wilson (Loyola Marymount) pitched against each other in college. At Long Beach State, Weaver hung out at the same Huntington Beach beaches Wilson used to hit growing up. By leaving the rival Texas Rangers and signing to play for his hometown team in December, Wilson completed the circle, giving the Angels three of the best homegrown pitchers in baseball.

Weaver is the only one of the three who came up through the Angels' system, but like a lot of Southern Californians, each of the three aspired to work as close to home as possible. Both Weaver and Wilson could have been even richer had they been willing to play elsewhere.

"We all like Mexican food, we all like the beach. At points, we've all had long hair," Wilson said. "In terms of attitude, we're all competitive in the same way. People might think, 'Oh they're SoCal guys, so they're like chilled' or whatever, but every single one of us is hypercompetitive. That's the only reason we're here."

Each of the three pitchers, in his own way, oozes Southern California. Wilson, from Huntington Beach, acts the way most people would imagine a punk surfer from Orange County would behave, though he lives in Los Feliz and is more into auto racing. Weaver, from Simi Valley, has more of a suburban-L.A., jock-ish vibe, and Haren, from West Covina, is the personification of West Coast mellow.

None of them can stand to lose. You can tell that if you stand anywhere near them in the Angels' clubhouse this spring, trash talk flying around their corner of the room, often over "Words with Friends" battles on their phones and iPads.

Wilson and Haren, 31, are two years older than Weaver and they've been clashing on area baseball fields for more than 10 years. They first met up in a memorable conference game in 2001, with Pepperdine pulling off an 8-5 win at Loyola. Each pitcher homered off the other. After that season, St. Louis picked Haren in the second round and Texas took Wilson in the fifth. Either one might have been able to make it as a hitter.

"He was a huge prospect and I [stunk] that year," Wilson said. "He was an All-American utility guy and a phenomenal pitcher and I knew facing him, 'This guy's going to be in the big leagues, he's so good.' I was way less polished and, at that point, more focused on being an outfielder."

Of the three, Weaver is the only pitcher who has never left the cocoon of Southern California. He has just gradually worked his way south. He stunned a lot of people in baseball last August, when he signed a five-year extension with the Angels for $85 million, a sum that is widely viewed as a hometown discount.

"It's been a blessing to be able to stay local, because family and friends are so important to me," Weaver said. "It's good to be able to know, at least for the next five years, they can watch me. And, if something happens, I can go and deal with it instead of having to fly across the country. It's very comforting, that's for sure."

The pitchers have learned to deal with some of the annoyances of pitching close to home, most notably the demand for tickets from that guy in middle school they hardly remember. After a couple of seasons of sticker shock from buying so many extra tickets, Weaver learned to just say no. Haren changes his cell phone number a lot.

Barring a trade, Weaver and Wilson will be teammates in Anaheim through at least 2016. The Angels have a $15.5 million club option on Haren after this season. If he pitches as well as he has the past half-dozen years, they'll pick it up without much debate.

For a guy his age, Haren has played the real-estate shell game quite a bit, selling houses in the Bay Area and Arizona after being traded. He's hoping the house he bought in Irvine for himself, his wife and his two young children will be his home base for a while.

"It's not easy selling houses nowadays," Haren said.

Spoken like a true Southern Californian.