Keeping it simple pays off for Angels

ON BASEBALL

September 15, 2002|By Peter Schmuck

Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia passed through Baltimore last week, repeating his mantra about the importance of focusing on the obstacle immediately in front of you.

It's a timeworn baseball cliche - you have to play them one game at a time - and yet Scioscia and his team have given it a deeper meaning with their amazing performance this season.

The Angels started the year with six victories in 20 games.

They were supposed to be overmatched in the American League West by the 116-win Seattle Mariners and the pitching-rich Oakland Athletics, but they are tied for first place in baseball's most competitive division after winning three of four in a showdown series with the visiting A's last week at Edison International Field.

It doesn't get any easier from here. The Angels are in the midst of a three-week stretch during which two of the three top teams in the AL West face each other virtually every night until the end of the regular season.

"We know it is going to be a dogfight," Scioscia said of the stretch drive, "but the way you get through it is by worrying about the next game and let the standings take care of themselves."

The hard-fought series against the A's again proved the wisdom of Scioscia's simple approach. The Angels fell behind when they lost the opener of the series. They fell behind by four runs in the pivotal third game. They just kept putting one foot in front of the other and emerged with a ninth-inning victory on Thursday night to pull into a tie with the A's.

Remember, this is the same Oakland team that entered the series just off a 20-game winning streak, but the Angels stayed right on their heels throughout and needed to gain just two games to arrive alongside them at the top of the division.

The mighty Mariners, meanwhile, were getting swept by the last-place Texas Rangers and - short of a miracle - will not be participating in the postseason this year.

Scioscia should be the American League Manager of the Year, unless he talks the voters into choosing someone else.

He says that if he had a vote, he would vote for A's manager Art Howe, who weathered the loss of Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to lead his team to some amazing accomplishments this year. Or Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who has led his tiny-payroll team to a double-digit runaway in the AL Central.

"If you look at not only the turnover Oakland has had - and certainly [general manager] Billy Beane has done a great job of plugging some holes - but to get that chemistry back, especially after some of the tough times they had earlier in the year is impressive," Scioscia said.

"To make the adjustments to get into the position they're in, I think Art deserves a lot of credit. He and Ron Gardenhire have done an incredible job."

Scioscia has been right about a lot of things this year, but on this count he is not. The A's have the best young starting rotation in the game and the Twins, with all due respect to what they've overcome, have won the AL Central in part because nobody else showed up.

The Angels have stared down two of the best teams in the major leagues to position themselves for their first postseason appearance since 1986.

Scioscia's contribution to their terrific season should not be underestimated.

Humility still in style

The Cleveland Browns lost a football game last week because a defensive player was too busy celebrating and drawing attention to himself to realize the game wasn't really over.

Maybe that's the difference between football and baseball. A's pitcher Barry Zito already has had a season to brag about - becoming the first AL pitcher to win 20 games - and yet he seems to have the whole thing in the right perspective.

"It [his record] looks so good on paper, but if you look at what goes into wins as a pitcher, it's not a true, accurate sign of how you're pitching," Zito said. "I look at ERA and other things. It's great to be in a category with all the other 20-game winners, but it's not a big goal of mine. If anything, I'm glad to hold up my end of the bargain with the other two. They've already won 20 before."

He was referring to teammates Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, who along with Zito give the A's a starting rotation that just might be good enough to carry the team through to a world championship.

Maybe then he'll feel more comfortable ripping his helmet off and banging himself on the chest to show everyone how great he is.

Oops, wrong sport.

Not looking ahead

Giants manager Dusty Baker is trying to focus on a tough National League wild-card race, but he has become the subject of rumors that he will leave the team after the season to become manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"It's all garbage, and it's stuff that I really don't need," he said.

"I've got work to do to get to these playoffs. I'm not going to get sidetracked or distracted with that stuff. ... The best thing is for people to leave me alone and let me do my job. There will come a time when all of this will be answered. Now is not the time."

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