These Angels more than winging it

Many standouts hobbled, yet Anaheim going strong


May 14, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - The Anaheim Angels are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, which creates the paradoxical notion that they are at once the most predictable team in baseball and the most surprising.

They are supposed to be good, since new owner Arte Moreno threw financial caution to the Santa Ana winds over the offseason, approving several big-dollar acquisitions to upgrade a team that was only a year removed from its first World Series championship.

And they have no right to be this good - winning 10 of their past 12 games to enter a three-game series against the Orioles tonight with the best record in the American League - because much of their potent offense is either on the disabled list or headed there.

Power-hitting outfielder Garret Anderson is sidelined with an upper back injury, Tim Salmon has been out for a couple of weeks with a sore left knee and first baseman Darin Erstad is on the DL with a severe hamstring strain. AL home run leader Troy Glaus was sent back to Southern California yesterday to have his sore shoulder and sprained knee examined.

If you're scoring at home, that's about 110 home runs and 350 RBIs on ice, based on the likely production of those four players over a full season.

"We're a little banged up," said manager Mike Scioscia, whose talent for understatement is exceeded only by his ability to keep his team facing in the right direction.

The Angels are a little banged up like the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter is a little off his game. Even the guys who are carrying the club - superstar Vladimir Guerrero and fellow hot-hitting newcomer Jose Guillen - are hobbling on sore legs.

They have continued to win at a club-record pace because of their solid pitching staff and a no-name bench that seems to come through with a big hit or a big play every night.

"I think our bench has really stepped up," Scioscia said. "These guys are really playing great baseball. That's why you can absorb - for a short time - the loss of a Garret Anderson or Darin Erstad, because of the high level these [bench] guys are playing at."

Wednesday night, with the Angels reeling from the news of Glaus' pending departure, reserves Chone Figgins and Jeff DaVanon delivered key hits and rookie Casey Kotchman broke open a close game with a three-run double at Yankee Stadium.

"Of course, we miss the guys who are not playing," Guerrero said through an interpreter, "but I'm glad the guys who are playing for the guys who are missing have done such a nice job."

The team was expected to have great depth after signing Guerrero, Guillen and power pitchers Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, but they could not have expected to plumb that depth to the extent that has been necessary over the first six weeks of the season.

"We have some key guys go out and other guys come in and do the job," shortstop David Eckstein said. "That's a positive. ... Once the other guys get better, we're going to be even better."

Still, the key figure in the Angels' lineup is Guerrero, who turned down offers from the Orioles and New York Mets (among others) to sign a five-year, $70 million deal in January.

Orioles fans were hoping Guerrero would complete a major offseason rebuilding effort in Baltimore, but the 28-year-old outfielder was rumored to prefer a location with a significant Spanish-speaking population.

He confirmed Wednesday that that was one of the major reasons that he chose Southern California.

"There was a point where my agents were talking to the Orioles very aggressively," Guerrero said, "but I wasn't really involved with the details. I have my mom with me all the time and she doesn't speak English, and I knew more about playing in Los Angeles because my brother Wilton played there. I just knew a little more about the community, and that played a big part. It was an area where my family would be more comfortable."

Guerrero has gotten comfortable in a hurry, batting .341 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs at the heart of a lineup that also has gotten big run-production numbers from Glaus and Guillen.

"He's everything that anyone said he was," Scioscia said of Guerrero.

Even with some big holes in the lineup, Guerrero said that the clutch performances off the bench have allowed him to stay relaxed at the plate.

"You can't replace Garret Anderson and Darin Erstad," he said, "but I'm very happy with the way we have responded to those injuries."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the Angels have terrific pitching depth, too. The addition of Colon - who will start tonight against Kurt Ainsworth - and Escobar (who starts Sunday) allowed Scioscia to choose from eight viable starters when he was constructing his rotation this spring.

Colon and Escobar have pitched well, but it is Jarrod Washburn who is leading the AL with six victories, in spite of a 5.14 ERA. He will face Eric DuBose in the second game of the series at Camden Yards.

And with Francisco Rodriguez (0.50 ERA in 18 innings) setting up closer Troy Percival, the Angels are among the AL's leaders in saves.

"Our pitching has come around, and we have a lot of confidence in our bullpen," Scioscia said. "They've done an incredible job."

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Anaheim Angels

Site: Camden Yards

Time: 7:35

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Angels' Bartolo Colon (4-2, 4.09) vs. Orioles' Kurt Ainsworth (0-1, 7.36)

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