More than a few Los Angeles Angels were glued to the TV in the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum on Sunday morning as Minnesota was pummeling Kansas City to force a one-game playoff with Detroit for the American League Central crown. But one was more clearly interested than the others.
"You see that?" said a beat writer as he playfully slapped a captivated Torii Hunter on the shoulder, pointing out that Minnesota pitcher Carl Pavano now wears the eight-time Gold Glove center fielder's old No. 48 jersey. "They're disrespecting you!"
The former Twin shook his head and flashed his trademark grin. "I'll get a ring," he responded. "It doesn't matter."
If it's October, it means the Angels are back in the playoffs. They've been the most consistent team in the majors over the past six seasons, winning the American League West five times, and usually doing it by a wide margin. That's the main reason why Hunter signed a five-year, $90 million contract to join the Halos in November of 2007. From the generous pockets of owner Arte Moreno down to the consistent stability of Mike Scioscia and his coaching staff, the Angels are arguably the best-run organization in baseball.
Yet it goes without saying that they've collapsed under the weight of expectations each time they've reached the postseason during that period. Since they won their first and only World Series in 2002, the Angels haven't even returned to the Fall Classic. Even though every single team they've fielded since then has been a better, more complete group of players, the Angels have found themselves steamrolled every postseason by another team on a tear -- usually by the Boston Red Sox, against whom they open the ALDS on Wednesday for the fourth time since '04.
But Hunter isn't alone in his optimism. The Angels aren't the favorite that they were last year, when the midseason acquisition of Mark Teixeira helped boost them to a franchise-record 100 wins and made them perhaps the most formidable team in club history. This year's version has its limitations, and even if it does get over the psychological hump of the Red Sox, it may well have to face the retooled Yankees juggernaut in the ALCS.
Still, all through the Halos clubhouse, there's a quiet confidence that this is the team that can reverse the recent trend of postseason failure and get that second title. Anything can happen in the playoffs, of course. But here are a few reasons why the Angels could be headed for Second Heaven.
Thanks to the emergence of homegrown products such as Kendry Morales and Howie Kendrick mixing with steady veterans such as Chone Figgins, Hunter and a finally healthy Vladimir Guerrero, Scioscia believes that this Angels lineup is the most talented and deepest he has had since that '02 team. And there's evidence to support that across the board. The Halos led the majors this season in batting average (.285) and hits (1,604), ranked second in runs (883) and RBIs (841), and third in on-base percentage (.350). Some of those numbers are even franchise records (batting average, hits, runs and RBIs).
But the most telling stat is that the Angels batted .297 with runners in scoring position, their highest total ever and the second time they've led the majors in that category since '05. That's a direct result of Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher's small-ball philosophy of getting on base first and then taking advantage of situational hitting to move runners over. They Angels have also been at their most aggressive on the basepaths this season, taking advantage of their speed from guys like Hunter and Figgins. Even 35-year-old Bobby Abreu was on the move this year, stealing 30 bases, his most in four seasons.
In the postseason, dramatic swings of the bat make the highlights, but scoring timely runs one at a time as needed will go a lot further, especially against pitching-rich teams like the Red Sox and Yankees.
The main criticism of the Angels heading into the playoffs is the quality of their bullpen: Their 4.53 ERA ranked 23rd in the majors. But that stat hides the fact that the 'pen has very much been a work in progress all season, particularly with the domino effect of the death of Nick Adenhart, as well as losing workhorse setup man Scot Shields to season-ending knee surgery in June. That forced two young relievers to step into more prominent roles, and they've done so beautifully.
Rookie Kevin Jepsen, 24, was hammered for the first two months of the season as he suffered from back spasms, but eventually settled down and lowered his ERA from nearly 20.00 all the way down to 4.94 by the end of the regular season. He has the nasty stuff that the Angels need to shut down Boston in the late innings. Similarly, 30-year-old righty Jason Bulger threw more than 16 innings for the first time in his career and finished the season with a 6-1 record and a 3.56 ERA. (He's more of a question mark after receiving a cortisone shot for tightness in his throwing shoulder.)
Meanwhile, veteran Darren Oliver, the bullpen's top lefty, put up the best numbers of his career with a 2.71 ERA in a setup role. And with Scioscia going with a four-man rotation of John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Scott Kazmir and Joe Saunders, fifth starter Ervin Santana moves to the bullpen, where he'll harness his mid-90s heat for one to two innings at a time. Santana served such a role in '05 when the Angels upset the Yankees in five games. With strong setup relief in front of closer Brian Fuentes, who led the majors with 48 saves, there won't be as much worry about Fuentes' slightly alarming 3.93 ERA.
Yes, the Angels have dominated the relatively weak AL West in recent years. Of their five division-winning teams, their margin of victory has been six games or more four times. And at first glance it would look the same in '09. But their eighth division championship in franchise history wasn't as easy as the 10-game margin would suggest. The Angels only took sole control of first place for good on July 11 after chasing the hot-hitting Rangers since Opening Day. And even then the lead never felt safe: Texas came within 3 1/2 games as recently as Sept. 4 before fizzling out.
"Those guys were breathing down our necks the whole time, and we felt the heat," says Hunter. "They were hitting the ball, and it was like, 'These guys just won't go away.' We had to fight those guys the entire way."
The Angels haven't been tested often during their recent divisional domination -- last season's 21-game victory lap in particular was almost a joke. This year, however, was very different, and the experience of that battle will serve them well in the playoffs.
There's no doubt that the death of Adenhart made this tight-knit group even tighter. But while the team has rallied around that tragedy and sees it as extra motivation, the fact is that they're tired of going home early, and they're especially tired of losing to the same team over and over.
"We get tired of answering the same questions," Lackey says of the upcoming matchup with Boston, "especially since we play the same team so many times. It is what it is -- we have to stop it."
Across the clubhouse, the longer-serving Angels are perhaps hungrier than they ever have been to get back to the promised land. While they're mostly keeping quiet about making any guarantees, it's clear that they're focused, motivated and ready to up their own ante.
Hunter sums it up best: "If you're a competitor, you want to get on base in the bottom of ninth, you want that guy to hit you the ball," he says. "Hit me the ball and watch me catch it, I dare you. That's what you want. You've got to want to be in that situation and you've got to know how to fail [in order] to succeed."
These Angels are tired of failing. Over the next four weeks we'll see if they've learned enough to take the next step.