It’s a good thing the Boston Red Sox are having as dreadful a season as they are because the Cleveland Indians needed that four-game series split after a harsh couple of weeks. The Tribe pitched much better in three of four and now leave Cleveland for a West Coast swing on something at least resembling a good note. And they’ll need it because at least two of their opponents on the trip are in the playoff hunt and the other is the Mariners.
So we find our dear Tribe winging to Anaheim to face the Los Angeles Angels (yes, I did that on purpose). If it weren’t for the surprise success of the Oakland Athletics, the Angels would have a stranglehold on one of the two Wild Card spots and be creeping up on the Texas Rangers spot in first. This is the Indians’ only visit to Angel Stadium this year; the Tribe hosted them twice and hold the season series 4-2. One of those visits was in April though, when Albert Pujols wasn’t hitting and the Angels young MVP candidate Mike Trout was still in the minors.
The Angels have had a rough August, going 3-7 up to this series, but they’ve been in it every game. Really, that seems to be their story this year – in the mix, but can’t quite get the lucky bounce. Their real record of 60-54 is just barely worse than their Pythagorean record, 61-53, it just seems like they should be better in the standings. Perhaps it’s that whole “tremendous pitching” they’ve got going for them. (We’ll get to that.)
The thing about the Angels offense is that perhaps the best player of the last decade has been able to carry on for the last two months or so without notice. Albert Pujols had a pretty forgettable beginning to the season, but in the second half he’s got a 1.042 OPS and has nearly as many home runs since the All Star Game (10) as he did for the entire season up to it (14). Turns out he’s not broken, he’s actually a serial baseball abuser that just can’t stop himself.
Pujols’ revere is possible of the person we’re all not talking about enough, Mike Trout. Yeah, everyone’s talking about him, but this is like what Bryce Harper was supposed to be. Maybe we all hyped Harper up a bit too much (he’d be a year out of high school if he was normal, for goodness sake) but Trout is just stunning. The usual Micky Mantle comparisons have come about and that’s always a blast because a) it means Trout is sicknasty, and b) it makes us think about how boss Mantle was, since he was hitting like this from both sides of the plate on a blown out knee for 18 years. What a marvel.
Trout is the best player on the Angels this year, with the possible exception of pitcher Jered Weaver. He’s got a slash line of .340/.402/.592 with 21 homers and 36 steals despite missing the first month of the season. This kid is a 40/40 threat down the road a year or two, and that’s about the coolest non-award achievement a player can get. He also plays center like Torii Hunter used to, robbing homers and web-gemming about like some sort of man-spider (note to self: good idea for a comic book). He’s one of the reasons I just love watching baseball.
It works out great for the Angels, because they also have Mark Trumbo, another youngster who’s evolved into a premier slugger in the league. He’s hit 29 homers with a .911 OPS this season, his second full in the majors. He’s walking more than his tantalizing 2011 and already homered as much as last year. Combine that with the return of Kendrys Morales (once a 30-homer threat in his own right and there’s no reason to believe he won’t come all the way back) and this Angels offense, seemingly bereft of offense only a year ago, has one of the best lineups in the league. They’re second in steals, fourth in homers and third in OPS. With crafty Mike Scioscia at the helm and all these tools, not to mention the most expensive bench player ever Vernon Wells ready to play at a moments’ notice, the Angels are in good shape. Their role players like Alberto Callaspo, Howard Kendrick and at this point in his career even Torii Hunter are wonderful players in their own right and any club would be happy to have them. Facing teams like this is always a little sad, because you can’t help but hearken back to the powerhouse 90′s teams, where even Cleveland’s role players were beasts. Maybe someone will strike oil in northern Ohio and decide to stay and become the next Steinbrenner. Ah, what could have been.
So the Indians have something to contend with here. With Travis Hafner back on the DL, Derek Lowe and Johnny Damon released and rookie Corey Kluber probably headed back to the minors, there’s a good chance that along with a certain pitcher (more on him in a moment) we’ll see Matt LaPorta. Meanwhile the league seems to have figured out Jason Kipnis, as he’s fallen right off after the All-Star break with a .559 OPS and no home runs. It’s a little discouraging but he’s still walking nearly as much as he’s striking out (13 BB to 16 K since the break) so there’s hope he’s just making adjustments of his own. Other than that 14-1 drubbing/handcuffing at the hands of the Red Sox and Jon Lester the Tribe did alright offensively against Boston, and they scored runs during the streak, they just couldn’t pitch. That’s where all this hinges, of course.