Richard Justice

Sum of Angels' parts are whole

Best team in baseball getting contributions far beyond Trout, Pujols, Scioscia and Dipoto

Sum of Angels' parts are whole

Sometimes, there's magic in the air. That's about the best way to describe the Angels these days. Only the bottom line counts, right?

"I don't know if there's one thing," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "but I think the overriding feeling when you've been here every day -- we've seen it -- is a team that has built confidence from the beginning of the season until now and has improved, I think, every step of the way through the summer. We've become a better club every day."

And now they might be the best baseball team on the planet. In the past two weeks, they've broken from a tie with the Oakland Athletics and won 11 of 16 games to open up an eight-game lead over the A's in the American League West.

As Oakland has stumbled, the 88-55 Halos have taken control with a resilience and a resolve that's a joy to watch. They're leading the Majors in runs this month. They've come from behind to win 43 times, tops in the Majors.

This has not been a season without challenges.

The Angels have had some injuries, including a potentially devastating one to No. 1 starter Garrett Richards, who was 13-4 and in the AL Cy Young Award conversation when he blew out a knee on Aug. 20. His injury was such an emotional punch in the gut that Scioscia had a brief team meeting, in part, to make sure his players supported Richards.

"I don't think anything needed to be said," Scioscia said. "But after the game, we just talked for a second to make sure guys understood we knew it was going to be a serious injury. We had to make sure we supported him and rallied around him. Sometimes you feel like you're letting the team down when you get hurt."

Josh Hamilton has missed 55 games. No regular is hitting .300. Another starter, Tyler Skaggs, is also gone for the season with Tommy John surgery.

All of which makes the ride that much more enjoyable. The Halos aren't one player or even four or five players. They're a couple dozen contributing in various ways. They're a creative general manager and one of the best managers in the history of the game.

"It seems like every time there's a pothole or a roadblock thrown in front of these guys, they might stub their toe, but they keep playing baseball," Scioscia said. "They know we have to keep doing that."

Mike Trout, with 32 home runs and 102 RBIs, is the best player in the game, and he is nicely positioned to win the AL Most Valuable Player Award after finishing second to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera the past two seasons.

Albert Pujols (26 home runs, 91 RBIs) is still among the most feared offensive players in baseball. But the Angels are getting contributions from every corner of the clubhouse.

Shortstop Erick Aybar has delivered big hit after big hit. So has second baseman Howie Kendrick and third baseman David Freese and lots of others.

There have been huge contributions from the farm system, from rookie right-hander Matt Shoemaker (14-4, 3.25 ERA) and outfielder Kole Calhoun (.284, 14 home runs) and others.

The Angels will need their two veteran starters, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, to be at their best in October, but it would be foolish to doubt what the Halos are capable of. Angels' starters have allowed three earned runs or less in 25 of the past 28 games.

General manager Jerry Dipoto did a tremendous job constructing a deep, talented bullpen, completing it with the non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisition of closer Huston Street. That bullpen has a 2.36 ERA in its last 73 appearances. It's so good that Scioscia has turned Richards' spot in the rotation over to sort of a bullpen day.

All of this comes after a tough couple of years in which the Halos made some high-profile acquistions -- Pujols, Hamilton, Wilson -- but were unable to get enough pieces in place to move past the A's and Rangers.

Along the way, Scioscia absorbed the kind of criticism he'd never had before. Which was absolutely ridiculous. He long ago established himself as one of the best managers in the game. Scioscia has won 1,321 games because he does everything well, from building relationships with players to managing a bullpen.

Now Scioscia is cruising toward his sixth division championship in the past 11 years. He'd be the first to credit Dipoto for his work constructing a winning roster. But it's more than just those two.

It's Trout's energy and joy. It's Pujols' relentless work ethic. It's the young guys such as Shoemaker and Calhoun. The Angels are 13-3 in Weaver's last 16 starts. It's all those guys and more.

When Scioscia is asked whether the disappointment of the past two seasons may have been a catalyst to winning in 2014, he, well, does not agree. He does not think anything good comes from losing, with the possible exception of a young player such as Calhoun getting a chance to play and grow into a big leaguer.

Yet Scioscia will tell you that it's just a teensy bit more fun in a season like this one.

"I think there was a frustration that built up in this club," Scioscia said. "I don't think that's a positive, but I do know these guys never lost confidence that we could get back to contend like we have. They also know we have a long way to go. You need to just worry about the game at hand."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.