Angels surge into September as baseball's best
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Although Mike Trout has accomplished an extraordinary amount in his short major league career with the Los Angeles Angels, he is quick to point out he's only just getting to the good stuff.
The Angels' star center fielder is awfully excited to be at the start of his first pennant race with the Angels, and he's hoping October in Orange County will be a thrill.
Trout and the Angels are surging into September with the best record in baseball at 83-53. Their remarkable summer peaked last weekend with four straight victories over the Oakland Athletics, who had led the AL West and the majors for most of the season.
''Well, we're definitely in a better situation than we were the past two years,'' said Trout, who has already reached career highs with 31 homers and 97 RBIs. ''We can't look too far ahead of ourselves, but we're having fun and we're winning ballgames. ... The team chemistry is unbelievable right now. It's been like that all year. We've been coming together all summer.''
With a sellout crowd at the Big A chanting ''Sweep! Sweep!'' on Sunday, Los Angeles opened a five-game lead over the A's and moved a season-best 30 games over .500. The Angels are erasing four years of expensive disappointments with a resilient pitching staff, a suddenly stellar bullpen and a lineup that doesn't rely solely on Trout or veteran sluggers Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton.
After four playoff-free seasons in which Mike Scioscia's job usually seemed to be in jeopardy, the majors' longest-tenured manager has molded his roster into a cohesive team with a shot at the franchise's second World Series title. Scioscia believes teamwork is the key to this version of the Angels, who have finally become something greater than the sum of their high-priced parts.
The Angels won just 78 games in 2013. A year later, they've got a decent chance to surpass the franchise record of 100 victories.
''The standings are a distraction right now,'' Scioscia said. ''We know we have a long way to go. You want to ask me in about three weeks, we'll sit down and talk. Right now, we're still in the heart of the pennant race. We need to chew this off one inning, one pitch, one game at a time.''
Trout is the Angels' keystone, but everything fits around him this season. Although Pujols and Hamilton aren't having spectacular seasons, they're supplemented by a bevy of solid role players.
Kole Calhoun has become an impressive leadoff hitter; Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick are justifying the Angels' faith in their longtime double-play combo with outstanding seasons; David Freese and Gordon Beckham appear to be forming a solid platoon at third base; and the Angels' highest on-base percentage belongs not to Trout, but catcher Chris Iannetta (.380).
''I don't think we're surprised at anything we've done,'' Iannetta said. ''I think if we play to our potential, we can match up against anybody. You want to start picking up the pace in August and into September, and that's what we're doing.''
The Angels' bullpen has been dramatically upgraded during the season, with general manager Jerry Dipoto turning a liability into a strength that recalls the club's dominant relief pitching from a decade ago. Dipoto acquired closer Huston Street and Jason Grilli this summer, adding two big arms to a group with a 2.43 ERA since early May.
The Angels are still on top despite losing 40 percent of their rotation to season-ending injuries. Garrett Richards, one of the majors' top starters this season, blew out his knee two weeks ago, and Tyler Skaggs is out until 2016 with elbow ligament replacement surgery.
The Angels still haven't replaced Richards, and they improbably used eight relievers to throw a three-hit shutout of the Athletics in his rotation spot last weekend. Jered Weaver has been better than C.J. Wilson, but the Angels' best starts in recent weeks have come from Hector Santiago and rookie Matt Shoemaker, who has surprised nearly everyone but himself by winning 14 games in dominant fashion.
Shoemaker has pitched 23 1-3 consecutive scoreless innings after blanking the A's for seven innings Sunday. The right-hander with a thick beard and a nasty splitter won six games in August while becoming the first Angels pitcher since Nolan Ryan to make three straight starts with at least seven shutout innings.
''We have such a good group of guys in here, and you just want to keep it going when you go out on that mound,'' Shoemaker said. ''That's the beauty of the team we have here. It's a great group of guys.''