Unholy Angels

We've had some fun these last couple of weeks, haven't we? We sure weren't enjoying ourselves on that woeful day when the Cardinals stood nine games under .500 and in last place in baseball's last-place division, after getting kicked in the teeth by two of the National League's stronger teams out west, and then stomped in the gut by the avenging Detroit Tigers.

Somehow the pageantry and bunting that marked the beginning of Interleague Play 2007 got lost for us that weekend.

But boy our chins are riding high now, and after these last two weeks you might even say that the Cardinals have got their swagger back. They looked suspiciously like 98-pound weaklings through most of April and May, but look like they're on the Charles Atlas diet again now.

Five series against some of the more pitiful teams in the NL – the Pirates, Nationals, Rockies, Astros, and Reds – can do that for a team.

And just in time to test out newfound mettle, here comes a real baseball outfit (with a preposterous name), the 2007 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, formerly known as the Anaheim Angels (when we bartered young and promising Adam Kennedy and a Christian pop singer for a disgruntled outfielder named Jim), formerly known as the California Angels (during most of the ownership tenure of Gene Autry, the singing cowboy), formerly known as the Los Angeles Angels (in their first few years, when not even travel agents looking to book families into Disneyland could find "Anaheim" on a map).

You might remember them from their 2002 playoffs when they all scrapped and hustled their way on base, caring not a whit for the conventional American League wisdom of playing possum at the plate, clogging the bases, and waiting for that mythical threerun homer. No, they swung freely and knocked the mighty Yankees out of their own ballpark, running the bases with abandon and scoring in bunches, not stopping until they got to the World Series stage against the Giants, playing nine Luke Skywalkers against Barry Bonds' Darth Vader. (Which makes Jeff Kent into Boba Fett, maybe? It's possible to overthink these things sometimes.)

It was then that the world was formally introduced to the Rally Monkey ™ and the ThunderStick ™, and wondered what this game of baseball had come to. However, despite the Disneyfriendly trappings, that Angels team played a fearless and relentless style of baseball not seen on the national stage in quite some time. In a sense, with their emphasis on base-running, contact hitting and strong fundamentals, Mike Scioscia's team may have been the last true "National League" team to win a World Series (although you can't get around that designated hitter thing).

Now five years removed, this Angels team may be the first to be as strong as that championship team. There are some old heroes like Garrett Anderson still in the lineup, but the core of the team – once centered around grizzled veterans like Tim Salmon and Darin Erstad – has been turned over to a new generation of talent. Just looking around the infield, you can find the young faces of Casey Kotchman (1B), Howie Kendrick (2B), and Mike Napoli (C), not a one over 25 and all of them everyday starters.

They have also been very resourceful with their talent this year: when the speedy Chone (pronounced "Shawn") Figgins was felled by injury, up stepped Reggie Willits, a 26-year-old player who had never cracked a list of the Angels' top ten prospects. Willits greeted the opportunity by hitting .345 in his first month, and .330 the next.

Combine these unexpected talents with the expected production of franchise cornerstone Vladimir Guerrero, and perhaps the stoutest top-to-bottom pitching staff in the AL, and perhaps it is no wonder that they enter Busch III with the most wins in baseball, and ready to add more.

If our Cardinals have enjoyed playing the schoolyard bully these last two weeks, now comes the time when they must take on somebody their own size.

Hidden Dragons

Visiting Disneyland as an adult, you can't help but notice that the lovable giant-headed cartoon characters that roam the grounds enticing young children into rapturous hugs and thousands of unkept photographs create a family-friendly fantasy that cleverly masks the theme park's true purpose – to systematically remove as much of your money from your person in as little time as possible. You quickly discover that the "priceless" memories that you've just created sure as hell have prices when the MasterCard bill comes due, and you curse that damn Mickey and that fish-tailed strumpet Ariel.

In the same way, the hoopla of your typical game in Anaheim, Rally Monkeys and all, combined with the fearsome reputation of the offensive force of the American League masks the true strength of this 2007 Angels team – a buzzsaw of a pitching staff that has the AL's second-best ERA (3.74), averages better than six innings per start, and leads the majors in wins from their starting pitching staff.

The same was true of their World Series team. Despite the fanfare and flurrying bats, it was the knowledge that with their nearly invincible goggleeyed bullpenners – Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly and 20-year-old Frankie "K-Rod" Rodriguez – all the team needed to win was a lead heading into the seventh inning.

This year they have been succeeding largely without their most well-known pitcher, Cy Young winner Bartolo Colon, the original "round mound of sit -down" with his 100-mph fastball and 50-inch waist. Since winning the award in 2003 with a 21-8 record, Colon has been beset by injuries and has yet to crack the 100-inning mark in a season, much less triple digits on a radar gun.

Rather, it has been a gauntlet of pitchers who have yet to register on the conscious of the casual baseball fan: John Lackey has ridden his heavy sinking fastball to 9 wins, tied for most in the majors. Crafty Kelvim Escobar has been carving up hitters with his mastery of off-speed deception. Ervin Santana has been as brilliant as a hundred suns pitching in his home park (4-1 record with a 2.41 ERA and 33 Ks), but lost in a fog in foreign lands (0-5 record with a 9.30 ERA and 23 Ks). Perhaps the best-known of the bunch is young Jered Weaver, who last year had the ignoble honor of pitching his way onto the major league level at the expense of his older brother Jeff, who was released. Weaver the younger went on to a sparkling 11-2 campaign in '06, and is showing no signs of a sophomore slump.

This staff should prove to be quite the challenge for the Cardinal hitters, even as we begin to show signs of life again.

The Crouching Tiger

It is somehow fitting, in the town that created Clint Eastwood, that baseball's quietest man also wields its most fearsome bat. To my knowledge, Vladimir Guerrero has never given an interview for print, and only rarely speaks to radio or TV personalities. A profile written about him in ESPN Magazine in 2005 describes him as "painfully shy, even around children" and reveals that "he's so quiet his nickname since childhood has been el Mudo (the Mute)."

And yet his prowess as a hitter is staggering, otherworldly. To look at the back of his baseball card is to wonder if he was not born directly of the baseball gods themselves. Perhaps it wasn't lightning that struck Robert Redford's tree and gave birth to "Wonderboy," perhaps it was Vladimir Guerrero falling to earth.

In ten seasons since the age of 22, he has played less than 154 games in a season only twice, and has never finished a full season with a batting average below .300. (.307 in 2001 was his lowest, but he did manage 34 home runs and 37 stolen bases that year.)

The only season in which he didn't hit 30 or more home runs was an injury -plagued 2003, his last as a Montreal Expo. (He managed a mere 25 in 110 games, with a .330 average.)

That he spent so many years in Montreal – Vlady was perhaps the last baseball player ever beloved by les Quebecois – in addition to his extraordinarily quiet nature outside the lines helped to shroud the legend of this man. That he has played in only three playoff series ever seems almost unthinkable.

But Vladimir and his talent are now fully recognized, to the point where he is currently the leading vote-getter among outfielders in the American League All-Star balloting, and among AL hitters stands behind only the mosthyped names in the living baseball pantheon – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and David Ortiz. In our mediasaturated world, it is extraordinary that such a man, who speaks only with his bat, can be so universally celebrated.

We hear that this weekend's games are standing-room only … if all those ticket holders really want to see a show, they should be sure to get there in time to see Albert and Vladimir, two of the finest hitters alive, take batting practice.

 

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