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Scrappy Angels hanging in

Special to

August 24

The Angels had lost a game Monday night they didn't deserve to lose. The umpiring crew got caught out of position, comically blew a call and cost Anaheim two runs. The home plate umpire simply wouldn't ring up a called third strike to end the game, and Brian Daubach eventually took Scott Schoeneweis deep to tie the game, which eventually led to another blown save in the 11th and a devastating defeat.

When teammates and members of the media came into the clubhouse afterwards, Darin Erstad was sitting in front of his locker, stoic, frozen in rage. And he didn't even play because of his injured ribs. "Darin Erstad," says manager Mike Scioscia, "isn't like anyone I've ever known."

Darin Erstad
Erstad's fiery leadership has been key for the surprising Angels.

They had lost one like that five days earlier in Toronto, when Carlos Delgado hit a dramatic, game-winning three-run homer. Two days later, they rallied for five runs in the ninth off Mariano Rivera, saved it in the 10th on a great Erstad catch and won it in the 11th on Erstad's homer. "Tonight," Erstad said before Tuesday's game, "will be no different."

Indeed, the Angels smoked Tim Wakefield 11-4. They lost Wednesday night in a game that had a three-hour rain delay, but they returned home to Anaheim still within hailing distance of the wild card after going 4-5 on a brutal stretch in Toronto, New York and Boston. "There's a lot that's special here," Erstad says. "It's going to be special for a long time. But we can still win this thing. We get (Troy) Percival back soon, our young pitchers are getting experience, we got Kent Mercker back ... "

Understand that no one expected Anaheim to be a serious contender this season. Proof? They had no games scheduled to be televised the last two weeks. That, now, is subject to change.

And all that stands between the Angels and a serious run at the wild card is their starting pitching. "We've made some progress here, and we've got three guys who are going to be keepers for years to come," says pitching coach Bud Black, one of the members of Scioscia's high-energy staff. They think Ramon Ortiz is going to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, and the way he pitched Wednesday after the three-hour delay and allowing three skimpy runs early -- including striking out the side in the seventh -- was an indication of his special qualities. And he did it in front of his hero, Pedro Martinez. Schoeneweis, who is leading the league in groundball/flyball ratio and is an improved changeup from being a solid 15-18 game winner, never quits. Jarrod Washburn has had physical problems, but when he's healthy, he wins.

General manager Bill Stoneman has been questioned about getting more veteran help down the stretch, but he inherited a farm system that didn't have a lot offer in trades. He did grab Scott Karl Thursday when Colorado found out that Boston made a deal with his agent while Karl was in the ten day "designated for assignment" period and gave him to Anaheim. But thanks to star reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who until Daubach's bloop beat him Monday had tossed 23 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings -- they have survived Percival's loss.

What would they be with a Mike Mussina or even a Chuck Finley? Well, without taking away from the job Scioscia has done, they do have one of the best everyday lineups in the league. There is no more important leader -- make that LEADER -- than Erstad. He plays maniacally, he's leading the league in hits, he's going to set the record for leadoff RBI. When it was suggested to Scioscia that Erstad and Nomar Garciaparra are the two purest players in the game because of the pace they play while caring nothing about individual statistics, Scioscia replied, "There's no question about it. They play on a level normal players can't dream about. It's just fun to get paid to watch them. If you didn't see it every day, you'd have a hard time believing what Darin Erstad is all about."

Ask Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne, who listed Erstad is one of his 10 favorite players, ever (Erstad was a punter for the Cornhuskers). Ask the folks in Falmouth, Mass. Most players in the Cape League have jobs that are recess periods. But go look on the walls of the Bradlee's Department Store on Rt. 28 in Falmouth: "Employee of the Month, July, 1994. Darin Erstad."

Troy Glaus is making a run at 45 homers -- and superstardom. Mo Vaughn is back over 30 homers. Garret Anderson is one of the best-kept secrets, creeping back to his usual .290-.300 with 30-something homers; he's the everyday man, as no AL player has played in more games over the last five years. Tim Salmon is a rock who plays hard every day and keeps getting better as the season wears on. Adam Kennedy and Ben Molina are battling for rookie of the year.

"There's a different atmosphere around this team," says Vaughn. "The manager has a lot to do with it. He's got a great staff, and there's an intensity out there every day. But Mike also understood from the beginning what we have here -- one heckuva team."

It's a team that you wish played in Boston or St. Louis where they love the game and the crowds go wild every night. "I have to admit," Erstad said in Boston, "it would be fun to play in this sort of atmosphere every night."

Even then, while the Indians, Red Sox, A's and Blue Jays watch each other on the scoreboards every night, the Angels have never gone away, or given up. Odds? Not good, because of the inexperience of the pitching staff, but watch them and give them a watch. To know this team is to root for them. To play them is something no one wants to do in September.

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