The AL West- the Angels Are About to Take Control

After playing in the doldrums for half a season, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have awoken in the AL West. Unlike the mythical Rip Van Winkle, who found things very different after his slumber, the Angels wipe the sleep from their eyes and see the same familiar faces in the AL West, all within their reach. The A’s, Rangers, and Mariners have all seemingly been hanging around waiting for the Angels to join the chase, so much so that none of these teams bothered to break away from the AL West pack. The Angels are now poised to make them pay dearly for this folly.

Of the four American League West squads, only one will be post-season bound, as it would be silly to think that the wildcard could come from this division. Oakland’s 50-45 record as of this writing, which leads the Angels by a game in the AL West, is only the seventh best mark in the American League, so it is going to take winning the AL West to get into the playoffs. The Angels have been on a tear since the calendar turned to July, winning all but one of their contests to come from seven games back in the AL West to where they now stand.

The Mariners are beginning to fade, losing eight of ten to fall into the AL West basement. Not coincidentally, Ichiro Suzuki has hit but 8 for 43 (.186) during this swoon; his batting average has fallen to .339. Second baseman Jose Lopez, who was on fire for most of the first half, has but one run batted in for these ten games. The Mariners have gotten good run production from Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez, but Adrian Beltre’s dismal 2006 continues, as he has yet to reach double digit homers and has but 37 RBI. Jarrod Washburn has gone 2-5 in his last ten starts; he is 4-10 for the year with a 4.41 ERA. Only Gil Meche has distinguished himself among the starters, with a 9-4 mark. Twenty year old Felix Hernandez is 6-3 in his last ten outings, turning around a 2-5 beginning to his year to even his record at 8-8. He will be a star in the very near future as he is still learning the ropes, but for Seattle to hang around much longer in the AL West he must deliver right now. The bullpen has blown eleven saves, and has already said goodbye to “Everyday” Eddie Guardado, who began the season as the closer, but was shipped to the Reds after blowing three games and losing three more.

The Texas Rangers have gone 7-7 in July, and have been unable to put together anything resembling a winning streak in the AL West. Shortstop Michael Young has been solid, second in the AL West and all of baseball in hits, a dozen behind Ichiro’s 136. Outfielder Gary Matthews Jr is having the year of his life, and is ninth overall in hits with 114, but sluggers Hank Blalock and Mark Teixeira are lagging behind their usual career numbers, especially Teixeira. The first baseman has 4 homers and 13 runs batted in for his last ten tilts to get his numbers to 12 and 58, well behind last season’s 44 long balls and 144 RBI. But the Rangers’ biggest problem in their AL West race is an old one, a lack of pitching. No starter has an ERA lower than 4.14, they have converted on only 26 of 42 save opportunities, and with the Texas summer about to ratchet the temperatures into the triple digits daily, the Rangers’ AL West chances are going to melt away like an ice cube on the pavement.

The Oakland A’s, 8-8 in July, are AL West leaders at the moment, but for how long? Budding star Rich Harden hasn’t pitched since June 4th, with the only good news concerning his ailing elbow is that it probably won’t need surgery. The rest of the staff has been just okay, with left-handed Barry Zito at 10-6 leading the way. Huston Street, who as a rookie in 2005 blew only four saves, has already done that 6 times in 26 chances. But it is the lineup that should worry A’s fans the most as they look to hold off the Angels in the AL West. Oakland is the only AL West club that cannot boast of a .300 hitter, and they have just three men, Nick Swisher, Frank Thomas, and Eric Chavez, who have over 40 runs batted in. Their leadoff man is a catcher, Jason Kendall, who has exactly one home run in his last thousand or so at-bats. Just four Athletics are batting over .250; the A’s are last in batting average in all of baseball, and 28th out of 30 teams in runs scored. They simply do not have the hitters to win the AL West.

The Angels are getting hot at the right time and will soon take control of the AL West. John Lackey is 8-5 and working on a scoreless inning streak of almost 28 innings. Bartolo Colon, the reigning Cy Young winner, is finally healthy and recently got his first win. Rookie sensation Jered Weaver’s 6-0 start has somewhat offset his older brother’s 2-10 fiasco; Jeff Weaver was sent to the Cardinals in a recent deal. Jered’s recent bout with biceps tendonitis looks to be over and he should be back in the rotation soon. Ervin Santana has kept the Angels afloat in the AL West with his 11-3 season; he has given up only 102 hits in 120 innings. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has blown only two saves and has way more than a strikeout an inning. The AL West was hoping that the Angel bats would stay asleep, but they have arisen just in time to help Vlad Guerrero, who is having his usual All-Star year with a .314 average, 20 homers and 71 runs batted in. Juan Rivera, a former Yankee farmhand, is hitting .362 in July, and the team is batting .322 in its last thirteen games, with 22 home runs.

The AL West is the Angels for the taking, as Oakland does not have the bats, Texas does have the arms, and Seattle does not have the talent to stop them. Of the Angels’ last five series of 2006, two are against the Rangers and two are against the A’s; fourteen games that will decide their fate in the AL West. Both Texas and Oakland need to find a way to make sure those games mean something.

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