Halos and Tribe are dangerous 

September, 10, 2007
With three weeks and less than 20 games to play, the news on Jeremy Bonderman may have made the American League playoff races nearly as clear as a September Naushon Island morning. The Angels have crushed the West, and by Thursday, the Indians will have finished a brutal three-city, 10-game road trip and taken a deep breath after playing 23 days in a row. If the Tigers have run out of time, what remains to be determined is who among the league's final four plays whom, and when.

Somehow in the sheltered world of the Delta Shuttle, there is the presumption that October will come down to the Yankees playing the Red Sox for the right to play the Mets. But at the risk of bodily harm from Mike Scioscia for merely thinking about the playoffs, start with this: With the first-round games spread out more than in years past, the teams with the best 1-2 starters may have a big advantage, and right now, the argument can be made that the Angels with John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar and the Indians with C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona have the two best pairs in the league. L.A. is 39-16 and Cleveland 39-20 in their duos' starts this season, after the two teams split a fascinating four-game series in Anaheim this past weekend.

There is a lot to be determined in this coming weekend's Yankee-Red Sox showdown at Fenway Park -- starting with Boston's need to get Daisuke Matsuzaka and Eric Gagne back on track for postseason legitimacy -- and how the two teams' young pitchers deal with the Indian summer during this series.

Right now, the Indians have a lot going for them. They have been able to win against their rivals' best pitchers (Sabathia and Carmona went 6-1 against Johan Santana and Justin Verlander, the pitchers the Tribe had to beat). They have put '06 behind them with their response to the 23 straight games, the emergence of Asdrubal Cabrera and the promise that Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner will get hot sometime. It seemed a given that their starters would lead the league in innings and quality starts, but watching the finale in Anaheim against the team with the best home record in the game was even more reason for optimism. Seeing Aaron Laffey (16-5 between Double-A, Triple-A and the AL), rookie Jensen Lewis and arguably the best left-handed reliever on the planet, Rafael Perez (one extra-base hit by a lefty in two years with a slugging percentage under .140), handle the Angels was the kind of sign the Yankees and Red Sox have seen in Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz.

Remember, being 23rd in payroll requires the Indians to be a constant work in progress. But that progress has happened during a season in which Carmona, Laffey, Lewis, Perez, Cabrera and Franklin Gutierrez all arrived from Buffalo to become significant contributors in building a six-game lead on the defending AL champion Tigers. Incidently, in the Indians' transformation, they have a team that loses no regular to free agency this winter, and can anticipate the 2008 return to grace of Cliff Lee and Jeremy Sowers.

But even after losing the last two games to Indians left-handers without Vladimir Guerrero or Chone Figgins, the Angels are emerging as the American League team to beat this fall. To begin with, please forget the October matchups and how home field is important if it's Los Angeles-Boston, or how Scioscia's Halos have always gone into Yankee Stadium with an intrepid attitude that has made them a thorn in Joe Torre's side in the 21st century.

To begin with, it's the style of play. During Scioscia's first spring training as manager, Shawn Wooten made a baserunning blunder and was thrown out at third base by what Scioscia estimates was "20 feet." Wooten slinked back toward the dugout, looking for a place to hide, yet Scioscia went up to him and said, "That's great. Never stop being aggressive. Don't worry about getting thrown out." By the manager's count, it happened to three or four other players that spring, and thus a style, philosophy and courage was born. "No one is afraid here," Figgins says. "We play a little differently than other teams, but no one's afraid."

In the media notes, the Angels have a daily total on the number of times they've gone from first to third on singles. Yes, they lead the league, by far, and in a sport where throwing has become a faded art, they force issues that few teams force. "A few years back," says Scioscia, "there was a stat where we went first to third 101 times and got thrown out six times, while the A's only got thrown out twice all season in 30 attempts going first to third. I prefer forcing the issue and not taking it safe. If we had a lineup of power hitters, would we play differently? Of course. But we play the way we have to play. I don't know where we rank in homers [12th in the AL], but we do what we have to do."

That includes leading the league in stolen bases for the fourth year in a row.

"They hit and run, steal, bunt and pitch out in the damndest of counts," says one AL scout. "They always rush opposing outfielders. They make contact and force opposing defenses to make all the plays. They always hustle. They're a very difficult team to play, and if they get their bullpen straightened out, they are a team that may be cut out for the postseason." Cue the 2002 ALDS, when they drove Bernie Williams to distraction by sprinting around the field as if they were doing spring training baserunning drills.

Now, there are issues to watch. Jered Weaver took a step back Sunday after a strong month in which his velocity had picked up 3-4 mph, and they have no idea what to expect when Bartolo Colon comes back. But the right people around Guerrero have morphed at the right time. Garret Anderson, who looked like a comeback player of the year candidate this spring before being sidetracked for nearly two months with hip flexor problems, leads the majors in RBIs since the All-Star break. Fire-starter Figgins, who missed more than three weeks with a bad wrist, is back and can start hitting right-handed this week. By the playoffs, he should be back to what Mickey Hatcher calls his Tony Gwynn imitation. Howie Kendrick, healthy, has hit close to .380 the last three weeks. Casey Kotchman, healthy, is emerging. Juan Rivera is back from his leg fracture, and Orlando Cabrera continues to play like the elite all-around shortstop he has become.

Scioscia has developed his two young catchers, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis, and when the team was besieged by injuries, Kendry Morales (.325) and Maicer Izturis became critical role and depth players. "This is the most depth I've ever managed," says Scioscia. Now, he just needs Gary Matthews Jr. to be the player he was for 3½ months.

Scot Shields had imploded since the break, culminating with a game-deciding gopher ball to Hank Blalock on Sept. 2. Last Tuesday, he went out and threw a simulated game to work on his mechanics. It didn't go too well. "I got a little frustrated," says Shields, who at one point turned and fired a ball from the mound over the right-field fence. "That night, they put tape on the bench where it landed," says Shields, who pointed out it was right in the vicinity where Blalock's homer landed.

Shields' mechanics and stuff were back when he faced the Indians on Friday night.

Francisco Rodriguez also has been in a post-break funk with four blown saves and a 4.36 ERA. Pitching coach Mike Butcher took him aside to work on not being as pronounced throwing across his body. The delivery was slower Sunday night, and the stuff was K-Rodesque.

If the Tigers' starting pitching can hold up without Bonderman, any one of five teams could emerge from the ALCS and get to the World Series. If not, any one of four AL clubs -- especially with six of the leading Cy Young contenders (Sabathia, Josh Beckett, Chien-Ming Wang, Lackey, Escobar, Carmona) pitching -- have a chance to win the playoffs.

It is not an Inside Track/Page Six lock that the passage to the World Series goes through the South Bronx or Lansdowne Street. When these final three weeks are done and it's October, it is possible the Angels and Indians will finish with the best records in the American League, with the right players healthy and hot, with the least need for Giant Auto Glass Replacement, in comparison to the teams emerging from the final weeks of the Yankee-Red Sox border bumper wars.

There is life west of the Garden State Parkway, so watch the Angels and the Indians. They're good, they're fun, they pitch, they play hard, their self esteem is not at stake in October, and either one could still be playing on Halloween.