By Tom Verducci
September 22, 2009

By now you are familiar with the popular narrative of the Angels' season: The organization formerly known for pitching, defense and small ball has been wearing down opponents with a deep, relentless offense. The pitching you know as mediocre, but hey, that's OK when everyone in the lineup is hitting around .300.

Well, there's one small problem with that characterization these days: It's flat out not true. The Los Angeles Angels are a better pitching team than you think. Suddenly, no team is heading into the postseason with a deeper rotation than the Angels.

"This is the best rotation we've had here in 10 years," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said last weekend in Texas, referring to his tenure with the club. "We feel every night the opponent is going to have to earn the runs they get."

Sometimes numbers, like day-old bread and Kanye West jokes, grow stale. The 2009 season numbers suggest that the Angels indeed are challenged on the mound. Their 4.52 ERA would be their worst since Scioscia took over in 2000. After boasting a top-five staff for five years running, their ERA ranking of 10th in the league would be their worst since 1996. They've tried 14 starters, just three short of the franchise record for such auditions set back in 1967, and 25 pitchers overall, equaling the most under Scioscia. So where does this "best rotation in 10 years" stuff come from? The Angels have a much better staff in the past month than they did in the first five months.

In 24 games since Aug. 29, Angels starters are 10-6 with a 2.27 ERA. They have pitched at least six innings in all but three of those 24 games, posted 20 quality starts and allowed no more than two earned runs 20 times.

In the past month, John Lackey, 30, Joe Saunders, 28, and Ervin Santana, 26, all have pitched consistently well, putting injury or arm-strength issues behind them. Jered Weaver, 26, their most reliable starter all season, has set career highs in wins (15), starts (31), innings (200) and strikeouts (168). And Scott Kazmir, 25, has been sharp every time out in his four starts since being acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay, thanks in part to his seeking out former Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson for guidance and a biomechanical analysis.

Middle relief, the soft underbelly of any team, is a non-issue. Asked a question about his setup relief roles, Scioscia responded, "In the seventh inning, we're still looking at our starting pitcher. I don't think there's a rule that our starting pitchers can't pitch deep into games."

Angels starters have averaged 6 2/3 innings during this 24-game run, leaving only seven outs a game for the bullpen to cover.

Well, that's great for the regular season, but does a deep rotation play well in October? Scioscia has no use for a number five starter in the playoffs. And the way Boston has manhandled the Angels in recent postseasons, he might not have any need for a fourth starter, either. Scioscia used only three starters in the 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 Division Series.

Since Troy Percival obtained the final out of the Angels' only world championship in 2002, the Angels are 5-15 in postseason games, including 1-9 against the Red Sox, their likely first-round opponent for the fourth time in six years.

Scioscia would likely set up his rotation to have Weaver and Lackey, in some order, pitch the first two games in Anaheim. (Weaver is currently pitching ahead of Lackey in the rotation.) Kazmir makes sense as the Game 3 starter in Fenway Park, where he is 6-4 with a 3.05 ERA in 13 career games. Game 4 would be a choice between Saunders (5-0 in his past six starts) or Santana (4-2, 3.38 in his past nine starts), with the odd man out going to the bullpen.

Changes in the bullpen, by the way, have also made the Angels a better pitching team. Right-hander Kevin Jepsen, who went through back issues, a demotion and a mechanical tune-up in the first half of the season, keeps getting bigger and bigger outs for Scioscia. Since July 1 he is 4-1 with a 1.89 ERA in 35 games. He has yet to allow a home run to a right-handed hitter in his big league career, covering 121 plate appearances in which right-handers are slugging an anemic .259 against him. In the past two months Scioscia has three times used Jepsen to start the ninth with a one-run lead and a right-handed hitter due up -- instead of allowing left-handed closer Brian Fuentes to start the inning.

"He's got the kind of stuff when he's on, he's going to match up against anybody," Scioscia said of Jepsen. "I don't know anybody who throws 96, 97 [mph] with a power slider and a good hook who doesn't match up with anybody. I think he's effective against everybody.

"You talk about [left/right] splits; I have not looked at any statistical analysis on him because I think he's a different pitcher than he was [early in the season]."

The bottom line is that the Angels are a much better pitching club now than they were for most of the season. Nonetheless, their starters still have to prove they can get the job done in October. In their past 20 postseason games Angels starters are 1-7 with a 5.04 ERA, with their only win coming from Paul Byrd in Game 1 of the 2005 ALCS. They have only four quality starts in those 20 games, and only three times did the starter take the ball into the seventh inning.

Sometimes in October, no matter how impressive your lineup might be, you need a starting pitcher to dominate a game. It may still only be September, but Scioscia has five choices who have the potential do just that -- more than any manager in the postseason.

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