Notes: Colon returns to bolster rotation

Notes: Colon returns to bolster rotation

ANAHEIM -- Pick your poison: Blistering two-seam fastballs courtesy of the hulking 6-foot-6, 245-pound Texan John Lackey; a barrage of mystifying changeups, cutters and curveballs from perennial peril Kelvim Escobar; debilitating four-seamers and sliders from Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana.

And now Bartolo Colon is back. Yes, the broken spirits of would-be hitters are about to increase at a ballpark near you.

The Angels' starting rotation has been nothing short of immaculate this season, routinely stifling even the most menacing of opposing offenses while allowing its own hitters to flourish. For the first 60 games of the 2007 campaign, merely placing the ball in the hand of a Halos pitcher seems to virtually ensure a victory.

Angels starters lead the Majors with 34 wins, with nine of those wins coming from Lackey. They rank second in the American League with a 3.70 team ERA, boasting a league-best 274 strikeouts in 528 1/3 innings pitched.

And as for their American League-leading 21 saves coming from their closers in the bullpen? Well, that will have to wait until another notebook.

"Me and John [Lackey] used to talk in Spring Training," Escobar said. "I used to tell him, 'This year, we have to throw 500 innings and win 40 games,' just messing around. It feels good when you see your teammates go out there and do good.

"I think we have been the best starting rotation, so far, in the league. If we keep doing that, we're going to win a lot of games."

The return of 2005 American League Cy Young winner Colon (5-2, 5.44 ERA), after suffering through a bout with triceps tendinitis, will only bolster the credibility of the rotation. Colon will take the mound Friday against St. Louis to open a nine-game road trip. He's looking to bounce back from an outing equally as painful as the inflammation in his triceps -- a 12-5 loss to Seattle in which the hefty right-hander allowed eight runs on 11 hits.

"Our rotation has been doing an incredible job, and Bart's been a part of that already," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Bart's a guy you definitely want to keep in that [lineup] because he's so dynamic. He's been great for us, with the exception of the last couple of starts."

The "last couple of starts" have been costly for Colon. In his last three starts, he has surrendered 17 runs, watching his ERA inflate from 3.66 to 5.44.

First-rate: First baseman Casey Kotchman blasted his seventh round-tripper Tuesday against the Twins, matching his career high set in 2005. The southpaw has gone yard his last two games and now holds a .309 average, third-best among AL first basemen. In his last 10 games, he has 10 hits with four RBIs, giving him a total of 28 RBIs for the season.

"He's gotten more comfortable in the batter's box," Scioscia said of Kotchman's increased hitting prowess. "Part of it is some of the adjustments he worked out with [hitting coach] Mickey [Hatcher], part of it is getting his feet settled for playing every day in the Major Leagues. He's certainly swinging the bat the way his potential said he could."

First blood: The Angels are outscoring opponents, 65-27, in the first inning, with a 189-136 advantage over the first five innings. They have scored in the first inning in eight of the last 12 games.

Jackin' fools: The Angels lead the American League with 52 stolen bases after having led the league in steals the past three seasons. They posted a Major League-best 148 steals in 2006.

DH goes MIA: The Angels will play without the benefit of a designated hitter as they begin a nine-game road trip Friday, making stops in St. Louis, Cincinnati and Dodger Stadium.

Regular DH Shea Hillenbrand, already limited by the return of outfielder Garret Anderson after recovering from a torn hip flexor, must split time between Reggie Willits, Vladimir Guerrero and the newly revamped Anderson in foreign National League stadiums.

But his recent string of solid at-bats -- he has 10 RBIs in his last 13 at-bats and has hit safely in 27 of 35 games -- makes Hillenbrand a more appealing option when resting the regular lineup.

Down on the farm: Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels catcher Hank Conger was named the Midwest Player of the Week. He batted .381 with a pair of homers and nine RBIs, including a grand slam. ... Brad Coon, Ben Johnson and Drew Toussaint smacked two hits for the Class A Rancho Cucamonga Quakes in a 7-4 win over the Lake Elsinore Storm.

Up next: Colon (5-2, 5.44) faces right-hander Kip Wells (2-10, 6.40) at St. Louis on Friday at 5:10 p.m. PT.

Larry Santana is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.