Beguiling arms key to Angels' success

Arms key to Angels' success

The Angels bullpen blew a six-run lead on Thursday in Texas. Staff ace John Lackey gave up 15 hits and six runs in less than six innings, and overall, the Angels pitching staff gave up 20 hits against the Rangers.

The Angels still won. Francisco Rodriguez earned his 36th save of the season, once again proving that in the end it's still all about the pitching and the Angels are all about the pitching when it matters.

Rodriguez along with starting pitchers Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana will represent the club at the All-Star Game on Tuesday in New York. What they really represent is the lifeline that has been keeping the Angels on top of the American League West standings and poised for a playoff run in the second half of the season.

"Pitching has kept us afloat," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The way we were struggling to get runs, we could have been looking up at a lot of teams in our division, but we've been able to pitch our way and keep our heads above water."

Angels starters are sixth in the American League in ERA at 3.82, while the bullpen ranks 10th in the league with a 4.11 mark. The offense struggled early, posting a .232 batting average in May and a .252 mark in June. The Angels hit .279 in April to start the season, but have a .289 so far in July. The offense is hitting near .300 (.297) during the last seven days.

The pitching has been solid all season. Saunders is 12-5 with a 3.07 ERA, Santana is 10-3 with a 3.53 ERA, while Jon Garland and Jered Weaver each have eight wins. Lackey, slowed by injury this season, is 6-2.

"The pitching is what has been carrying us," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "The pitching has been keeping us in the game until we can get that big hit in the eighth or ninth inning. With Frankie closing it out, he has been lights-out. It's been good from start to finish."

The offense hasn't. Why?

"There's a lot of things going bad: the continuity of the grouping, the chemistry and the getting on base early in innings and trying to get into our game," Scioscia said. "A lot of things have not jelled the way we know they can and there are different reasons for each."

Some things don't change. Vladimir Guerrero leads the Angels offense with a .288 batting average, 15 home runs and 49 RBIs. First baseman Casey Kotchman has been doing his part, but he and Guerrero are the only regulars (not including shortstop Erick Aybar) hitting above .280 this season.

The outfield/designated hitter trio of Hunter, Gary Matthews Jr. and Garret Anderson has not lived up to expectations. Matthews has been benched and Anderson is hitting .266. Hunter is hitting .271, but has 12 home runs and 43 RBIs. The center fielder is optimistic about the second half but admits there has been an adjustment period.

"Gary Matthews Jr. was with another team, I was with another team and Vlad was with another team, and we are all coming together," Hunter said. "It's a chemistry thing. It's something that as baseball players and coaches we know about and I don't think a lot of people understand outside that chemistry is everything. Now we are starting to get in tune with our role. We are starting to play and it can take a while. You just have to find your new role and find yourself."

Rodriguez finds himself on a record-setting saves pace. He has blown only three save opportunities this season and is taking advantage of the fact that 53 of the Angels' games have been decided by two runs or less. The club has 55 wins this year. The closer said there is really no secret to his success in '08 and the reason for the team's triumphs should not come as a surprise, either.

"We have always had great starting pitching, last year and the year before," Rodriguez said. "Obviously, right now the offense is not doing too good, but they are doing a lot better and starting to pick it up. When we get our pitching and hitting together, we are going to be fine."

"You can say our pitching has kept us together so far, but that is baseball," Santana said. "Sometimes you pitch better than you hit and sometimes you hit better than you pitch. We are not worried."

Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.