Taking flight, Angels poised to challenge M's in AL West

Despite slump, Oakland still in striking distance


May 30, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It was little more than three weeks into the 2002 season, but three teams in the American League West already had to be asking themselves the same question.

Why even show up?

The Seattle Mariners, coming off their amazing 116-win regular season in 2001, were 17-4 on April 23 and showing no signs of cutting the rest of the West an inch of slack. No one seriously believed they could win as many as 116 games again, but they were 21 games into the schedule and on a 131-win pace and, well, nobody thought they could do it last year either.

The AL West race - with two teams already staring at double-digit deficits - looked as if it might be over in April for the second year in a row. The Oakland Athletics were barely above .500 and soon to slip into a nasty tailspin. The Anaheim Angels were 6-14 - 10 1/2 games out - and the Texas Rangers were trying to find an accounting firm willing to shred their payroll documents.

Who would have guessed at the time that it would take only a month to make things interesting again? And who would have imagined that it would be the 6-14 club creating all the buzz?

The long-suffering Angels have engineered a dramatic turnaround that has lifted them to within three games of first place and poked a hole in the aura of invincibility that has surrounded the Mariners for more than a year. The A's also appear to be righting themselves after a lengthy slump dropped them 10 games off the pace. The Mariners still have a firm hold on the division lead, but they can no longer take it for granted.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia acknowledges the situation looked pretty grim on April 23, but he says he never lost faith that the Angels could climb back into contention.

"The way we were looking at it, our challenge was more internal - to try and get our club to play well," Scioscia said. "We felt then, and we still feel, if we play up to our potential, we are a championship-caliber team."

The Angels have been playing up to - and perhaps beyond - their potential for the past five weeks. They arrived in Kansas City this week with 22 victories in their previous 27 games.

They climbed from 10 1/2 games out of first place to 1 1/2 games out before the Mariners - who went a more mortal 15-13 over the same period - won two of three against the Orioles over the weekend to open up a little more breathing room.

"We envisioned that we would be in the race," Scioscia said. "We had confidence, but looking at the standings then, we knew we had our work cut out for us, and we still do."

The Angels have taken the place of the A's as the primary challenger to the Mariners' continued dominance of the division, but no one is discounting Oakland at this juncture in the season. The A's got off to a disappointing 8-18 start in April 2001 and recovered so dramatically that they finished with 102 victories and the second-best record in the major leagues.

They got off to a solid start this year, entering May with a 15-11 record, but lost 15 of their next 20 before sweeping a three-game series with the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays over the weekend.

"The A's proved last year that a tough start or a tough spell isn't going to put them out of the race," Scioscia said. "When you look at their starting pitching, there is no way that you can look at the A's and say they are out of it. They have a great core over there. It isn't going to take much for them to turn it around and get on a streak. They ran into a few bumps last year and still won over 100 games, so there isn't much chance that they are going to just fade away. We know that."

Certainly, the A's cannot be dismissed on the basis of a three-week slump, but they clearly are not the same team that played so well from May to October last season.

Offensive cornerstone Jason Giambi jumped to the Yankees during the off-season, and the A's also lost speedy center fielder Johnny Damon to free agency.

"We know we can [come back]," manager Art Howe said Tuesday night. "We know it's been done, but you certainly don't want to have to do it every year. We have a little different makeup of a club, so it might be a little more difficult this time."

It will be a lot more difficult if the talented nucleus of the starting rotation doesn't get back on track soon. Mark Mulder, who won 21 games and ranked second in the 2001 Cy Young balloting, is 3-4 with a 6.10 ERA. Tim Hudson, who won 18 games last year, is 3-6 with a 4.60 ERA. Cory Lidle, who is coming off a 13-6 performance, is 1-5 and waiting to come off the disabled list.

So far, left-hander Barry Zito (5-2, 3.51) is the only regular member of the rotation who is pitching well on a team that figured to depend far more heavily on the pitching staff this year than last.

Under the circumstances, Howe actually seems happy the Angels have stepped up to challenge the Mariners, even though it means there is another team the A's have to overtake to get back to the postseason.

"I think it's better for us that there is another team in the division that is going to give [the Mariners] trouble when they play them," he said. "Last year, they [the Mariners] ran roughshod over everybody else, so no matter what we did, no matter how well we played, it was tough to gain ground on them.

"We just have to take care of our own situation. There's a lot of baseball still to be played."

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