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Angels rely on their glue guys

Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The oversized portraits loom over the entrance of Angel Stadium like a monument to the overindulgence of big-money baseball.

There's Albert Pujols, who has a 10-year, $240 million contract, and Josh Hamilton, who has a five-year, $125 million contract, and Jered Weaver, who has a five-year, $85 million contract, and C.J. Wilson, who has a five-year, $77.5 million contract.

They are the top-heavy contracts on a Los Angeles Angels payroll that is the ninth-highest in Major League Baseball. The Angels have been in the top 10 the previous four years before this season but failed to advance to the postseason each time after a run of making the postseason in six of eight seasons, including five division titles and one World Series championship.

This season, however, the Angels finished with the best record in baseball (98-64) and will play their first postseason game since 2009 on Thursday in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Kansas City Royals thanks in large part to a group of players making six figures on a team filled with multimillionaires.

They are scattered throughout the clubhouse -- "glue guys" -- holding together and often holding up a high-priced roster that needed a breath of fresh air and a shot in the arm.

By the end of last season, it was clear the Angels needed to shake things up. They weren't so much a team but a collection of contracts, some more regrettable than others. They were an unhappy bunch, which happens when you finish below .500 and have fewer than 80 wins for the first time in a decade.

If you randomly picked four Angels players to sit together for lunch, there was a good chance, at best, you'd get awkward silence during the meal or, at worst, a fight before dessert came, according to one source.

"That's not the case this season," said one Angels player. "There are no cliques. We're a different team."

A once-fractured locker room has been healed and pieced back together by a collection of players who are playing beyond expectations while finally helping the Angels reach theirs.

Most of the players who have helped spark the Angels' turnaround this season were already with the organization. Whether they were called up from the minors or finally blossomed into the players the team had hoped for, the Angels didn't have to throw cash at their problems by signing high-priced veterans.

Garrett Richards, 26, had been with the Angels since 2011 after being selected by them in the first round of the 2009 draft. He had a 4.42 ERA coming into this season but then became the Angels' ace before tearing the patellar tendon in his left knee.

Richards, who is making $520,000 this season, had a 13-4 record with a 2.53 ERA before going down. He was holding opponents to a .194 batting average with 164 strikeouts in 167 innings. He had become one of the best pitchers in baseball, as he had a 1.79 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 14 starts from June 4 until his injury on Aug. 20.

When Richards went down, the Angels were in a neck-and-neck battle with the Oakland A's for the best record in baseball and the AL West lead. By the end of the season, the Angels won the division by 10 games.

"It just shows the resiliency that we've had in situations like that," Weaver said Wednesday. "I think that everybody picked themselves up and realized that we've got to do some things to get over that, to overcome that. We've played some pretty good baseball since then."

One of the reasons the Angels were able to survive without Richards was another unknown gem before the start of this season in Matt Shoemaker, who had spent all of last season in the minors.

Shoemaker, 28, had 16 wins this season, a franchise rookie record, and had a .800 winning percentage (16-4), which led the majors and established a franchise record. Since July 1, Shoemaker posted a 2.09 ERA and a 1.49 ERA across his final 11 outings. Shoemaker, who is making $500,500 this season, was also named the AL pitcher and rookie of the month for August. When he was presented his award, many of his teammates wore fake beards on the field to greet him for a team picture.

"It was very special," said Shoemaker, who will pitch in Game 2 on Friday. "I had no idea that was happening. It was definitely an honor. It was pretty touching, too. You see that and it shows how much our teammates care about each other. It made me laugh in a very emotional way."

One of the Angels' biggest surprises this season has been Kole Calhoun, who spent most of last season in Triple-A Salt Lake. The 26-year-old outfielder, who is making $506,000 this season, had 17 home runs and 58 RBIs from the leadoff spot this season, tying him for first in the American League. His .473 slugging percentage batting leadoff leads the AL, and his .337 OBP ranks fifth and the Angels are 35-4 since July 1 when he scores a run.

"I'm trying not to be comfortable," Calhoun said. "Every day is a blessing up here. Especially coming from where I've come from. I'm happy to be here, and I want to help this team win. There are a lot of different personalities in here, but the one thing we all agree on is we're going to need each other to do something special here. A lot of egos get checked at the door, and we go out there and we play together as a team."

Calhoun's locker is next to Collin Cowgill, who is making $506,000 this season and having a career year as 28-year-old in his fourth season in the majors. He established career highs in hits (65), runs (37), doubles (10), home runs (5), RBIs (21), walks (26) and games played (104), and he hit his first career walk-off home run on June 10 in the 14th inning.

"Shoot, I just showed up to spring training just wanting to help the team win," Cowgill said. "Obviously, I wanted to have a good year, everyone wants to come in and have a career year, but my job is just to play when I play."

Spring training was the first hint John McDonald received that this Angels team could be special. He signed a one-year, $850,000 contract after winning the World Series with the Boston Red Sox last season. The 40-year-old has been a veteran clubhouse leader and Mike Trout's clubhouse neighbor since the start of the season. The stats won't show it, but he has helped change the mood in the clubhouse and on the field. The Angels are 78-16 in games in which he appears.

"When we left spring training, everybody was excited to see what we could possibly accomplish this year," McDonald said. "You're not always thinking when you leave spring training that you can win a World Series, but on a team like this, when you're talking about it in spring training, it's special. We don't just want to make the playoffs when you have a team like this. We want to see how far we can go, and we've been thinking about that since spring training."

The list of young Angels role players who have helped turn around the team goes on and on, from C.J. Cron, 23, who despite three trips to the minors this season had 11 home runs to tie him for sixth overall by an AL rookie this year, to reliever Mike Morin, 24, who has stranded 34 of 43 inherited runners this season.

"There's no doubt that a lot of the youngsters that have helped us in the minor leagues the last couple of years that came are having an impact," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "You need to get depth in a lot areas and a lot of positions and these guys have come up and provided a huge foundation for our club, and I think we've become more of a team one through nine in the batting order as opposed to just focusing on some guys in the middle."

The big names and big contracts on the Angels probably will grab the headlines to open the postseason, but if the Angels' run is going to end with a World Series rather than an early exit, chances are America soon will be introduced to some of the team's many glue guys who have quietly powered the team's turnaround.

"The character on this team is amazing," Angels general manager Jerry DiPoto said. "We had much more depth than people thought we had. Every time we reached down to the minor leagues to pull somebody up or acquired somebody in a trade it worked out great. That kind of karma works. They have persevered, and that's what championship teams do."