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2014 Highlights: The Streak

October 20th, 2014
Kendrick

Howie Kendrick, temporary clean-up hitter extraordinaire.

Previously, on 2014 Highlights: The Arrow Game; The Sweep

Entering September, the Angels’ second-half record was solid (26-16) but the offensive juggernaut that carried them through the season’s first three months and change was nowhere to be found. The team that averaged an MLB-best 5.1 runs per game in the first half was managing only 3.8 a game post-All-Star break. Strong pitching allowed the Halos to gain ground despite their impotence at the plate, but with Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs out for the season, the bats would have to come alive in September if the club wanted to secure the AL West title.

Does 86 runs in 10-game span qualify as coming alive? I feel like it might.

After two milquetoast losses to Astros to begin the month, the Halos put in their Game Genie and went into god mode for nearly a fortnight, mashing their way to a 10-game winning streak. The team averaged almost nine runs a contest during the stretch, never once scoring fewer than five runs and only twice plating fewer than seven. When laid out in a row–5, 7, 8, 14, 12, 9, 8, 7, 11, 5–their runs read more like hit totals than anything else. The streak matched a number of franchise records, including consecutive games (8) with 7+ runs, and consecutive games (6) with a margin of victory of four or greater. In just 10 days, the team raised its second-half scoring average by close to a full run, up to 4.7 per game, and extended its division lead to an uncatchable 11.

On the micro level, Scioscialism was in full effect during the streak. Nine Angels had at least five hits over the 10 games and six guys had 12 or more knocks. The team batted .329/.392/.541 overall in the stretch, and no player with more than four ABs failed to tally at least one base hit. Howie Kendrick was the team’s fearless leader on offense, jumping into the clean-up role and batting .500/.532/.795 with seven extra-base hits in 47 plate appearances. No one else came within seven hits of Howie, who managed to raise his OPS by 44 points. That’s not easy to do in September.

I suppose one could make the argument that the Angels peaked too soon with their early September rampage, but that kind of assumes the team has some level of control over when they play well and when they don’t. I think everyone involved would have loved to have had The Streak coincide with the start of the playoffs, but baseball just doesn’t work like that. (Unless you’re the Royals, of course.) No, The Streak didn’t catapult the Halos to a second World Series championship, but it did propel them to their first division title since 2009 and all but guaranteed they would finish the year with the best record in baseball. No reason one can’t wish for a better October outcome and also appreciate the awesomeness of this particular feat. The second-longest winning streak in franchise history deserves its day in the sun. Now if only we could convince MLB dot com to create a 10-minute montage of The Streak’s best moments.

***

One #SadFact for the road: All but the first game of The Streak were won sans Josh Hamilton. The idea the Angels needed his lagging bat in the lineup during the ALDS was already pretty ludicrous. When you add the fact that arguably the most productive offensive stretch in franchise history was ostensibly achieved without him just three weeks earlier? Looks real bad, Bob.

Up Next: The All-Star Game

2014 Highlights: The Sweep

October 18th, 2014
The exact moment the Angels stole the A's mojo.

The exact moment the Angels stole the A’s mojo.

 

Previously, on 2014 Highlights: The Arrow Game

Let’s set the stage. The Angels have spent the last 14 days dancing between two games back and two games ahead of the A’s in the AL West. Oakland has faltered some in the month, but still holds a +61 run-differential advantage (!) over the Halos and remains the consensus Best Team in Baseball. On one side, a rotation ace has just been lost for the season; on the other, two new aces are adjusting well to the pitcher-friendly confines of the Coliseum.

It is the final four days of August, and the Angels are hosting their division rivals for four games. Anything other than a sweep for the Halos will preserve the back-and-forth status quo. No one expects a sweep. Against the gauntlet of Sonny Gray, Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir, the most anyone is asking for is a split. Anaheim has swept Oakland only once the last three seasons, and not in a four-game set since 1997. The odds, they are long.

And yet…

The opening contest is a battle, with the Halos squeaking out a 4-3 win in 10 innings, but the rest are more or less a cakewalk. The Angels flat out dominate. Oakland scores just one run in the final 31 innings of the series, going 29 frames scoreless at one point, and is shut out in back-to-back games for the first time since 2006. Weaver outduels Lester, a desperation bullpen experiment outduels Samardzija, and Shoemaker outduels Kazmir. The Angels waltz to the sweep, expanding their division lead to a full five games and increasing their odds to win the West by a full 31 percent, from 61% to 92%.

***

I honestly cannot remember another important regular season series ever going so well. I wrote a bit about the catharsis the sweep brought right after it happened, and reminiscing about it nearly two months later still brings with it a wave of endorphins. It was the pivotal point of the season for both teams: the Angels turning upward, into the best team in baseball; the A’s spiraling downward, into a near-full collapse.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Sweep. After it, the Angels needed to simply be mediocre down the stretch to take their first division title in four years. (They weren’t, of course, but that’s a story for another day.) They entered September an MLB-best 86-56, with 12 of their next 13 coming against sub-.500 opponents. With any other result in the series, who knows how the rest of the season plays out. Maybe the A’s aren’t so deflated for the stretch run, and maybe the Halos don’t click until it’s too late.

There were a lot of great individual moments in the series — e.g. the bullpen shutout, Coco Crisp robbing then dropping Chris Iannetta’s home run, Matt Shoemaker extending his scoreless innings streak — but my personal favorite was the obliteration of Scott Kazmir in the series’ final game. I don’t typically take pleasure in the pain of others, but Kazmir falling to pieces anytime he has anything to do with his former club is just too good not to revel in.  The southpaw allowed just 1⅓ innings on the day, and is now the not-so-proud owner of a 22.10 ERA against the Angels over three starts the last two seasons; he has not made it through the fourth inning nor allowed fewer than five runs in any of the three outings. I’m don’t know what kind of psychological hold the Halos have over Kazmir, but it sure makes for some fun baseball.

__

Up Next: The Streak

 

Halos Claim Two Outfielders From D’Backs

October 8th, 2014

The Angels officially kicked their offseason into gear Tuesday afternoon. It was only first gear, and the clutch stuck a few times before they could get it going, but it’s still technically forward motion so I’m writing about it. What got the motor running were the waiver claims of D’Backs outfielders Roger Kieschnick and Alfredo Marte, the fourth and fifth players to make the direct trip from Phoenix to Anaheim in the last 11 months.

I fully expected the special relationship between the Angels and D’Backs to end when Kevin Towers got shit-canned last week, and I surmise it still will. We should probably consider these moves as the dead cat bounce of the relationship, especially since they were more of yard sale buys than anything else:

Dipoto: “Hey there, long time. How much for the Kieschnick?”

D’Backs: “Eh, it was our dad’s. Just take it. <pauses> <sees LaRussa in the distance, signaling to an empty bullpen> <sighs> “And you know what? As long as you’re here, you may as well take this Marte, too. We never figured out how to get it to work, but you might have better luck.”

Dipoto: “Uh, alright. Thanks, I guess.”

Scioscia Beats Yost At His Own Game; Loses

October 3rd, 2014
/groan

/groan

 

Oh, right. THAT’S what a postseason game feels like.

After four years on the October sidelines, I’d almost forgotten the agony and exhilaration that hang on every pitch for both players and fans. I know I let the moment get the best of me a number of times Thursday night — sorry, dog, for startling you with all the yelling and the kvetching and the gesticulating  — so it makes sense that it might affect the decision-making of a manager as well, even a seasoned one.

That’s the best explanation I have for the baffling offensive strategy employed by Mike Scioscia for Game 1, in which the Angels fell to the Royals 3-2 in 11 innings. After laying down just 26 sacrifice bunts all year — nine of which were put in play by either John McDonald, Luis Jimenez, or a pitcher – Scioscia decided that his offense needed to put down *three* on Thursday, or more than 10 percent of their season total. You may have noticed that neither McDonald, Jimenez, nor a pitcher were in the lineup. No, instead those three attempts came courtesy of Erick Aybar, who inexplicably laid down two with Josh Hamilton on deck and a lefty on the mound, and leadoff man Kole Calhoun, who’s not only the third-best hitter in a stacked lineup but who also looked about as comfortable squaring around to bunt as I do juggling chainsaws on one leg over a shark tank. (NB: I’m a terrible juggler.)

Keys to the Division Series

October 2nd, 2014
"Something"

Official keys of the ALDS

Abloy keys are notorious for opening impossible-to-pick locks — challenge accepted — and are reportedly the house key of choice in Finland, where they were invented. Employing a disc-detainer system similar to those found on combination locks, the specially designed keys play the part of the dial by rotating the numerous discs in the tumbler lock with a variety of unorthodox cuts in the keys.

What does this have to do with the Angels and the ALDS? Not a damn thing. But in the interest of stupid analogies everywhere, and in honor of Mark Gubizca’s seemingly boundless knowledge of popular ’70s and ’80s music, let’s see if I can contrive something before moving on to more salient, substantive points:

 

1) The impossible-to-pick-ness of the locks is obviously an allusion to the Royals’ elite speed and skill on the basepaths, as they not only led the majors in stolen bases (153), but also stolen-base percentage (81%). Kansas City has such confidence in its non-pickibility this season that it successfully stole third nearly as many times as the Orioles swiped second — 29 to 37. KC has no steals of home this season, but the widespread use of Abloy keys in houses would seem to indicate that’s not out of the question.

2) Next, the prevalence of the keys in Finland is a wry nod to Royals manager Ned Yost. While the rest of Scandinavia shares a common lingual ancestry — Germanic, like us — and can mostly understand each other, the fine folks in Finland have a native tongue — Finnish, naturally – that can give fits to even the most cunning linguists. Similarly, while most MLB managers have come to speak the common tongue of trite clichés and attaboys, Yost has adopted a patois that is as captivating as it is confounding, like a train wreck in outer space. He says what he means and he means what he says, but no one can say if that means anything.

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