Angels assemble top-notch defensive unit

Angels assemble top-notch defensive unit

Angels assemble top-notch defensive unit
ANAHEIM -- The focus on Tuesday night at Angel Stadium will be entirely on Ervin Santana, facing the Twins coming off his no-hitter in Cleveland.

Easy-going and seemingly immune to hype, Santana had been pitching exceptionally well for about six weeks leading up to his polished gem at Progressive Field. But he hadn't been as upbeat as normal. A dearth of run support kept his victory column stagnant for a long stretch, even though he was performing just as well as he did in claiming a career-high 17 wins last season.

Run support comes and goes. It's something every starting pitcher learns to deal with, out of necessity. If he doesn't, he'll lose a lot of sleep. Jered Weaver finished with 13 wins last year, and he easily could have had 20. Santana has six and easily could have 10 or 11.

While the Angels' high-quality rotation never knows what it's going to get from its offense, it has grown to depend on a superb and consistent defense.

The surest way to unravel a pitching staff emotionally is by playing inefficient, uninspired defense. The Angels this season have been about as good as any team in the Majors.

As with the human body, the spine of a defense supports all other functions and maintains balance. It runs from the catching position through the middle infielders and out to center field. The four corner roles are important as well, but if your spine is weak, the whole body of a defense falls apart.

From Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson through Erick Aybar, Howard Kendrick and Maicer Izturis and on out to Peter Bourjos, the Angels have an athletic, creative and fearless collection of talent.

The infield and catching are rock solid, and the outfield is where doubles and triples go to die.

At least three legitimate Rawlings Gold Glove Award candidates are in the mix -- Mathis, Aybar and Bourjos -- and the others are skilled professionals who keep the mistakes to a minimum.

"I think our defense has been special all year," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Early on, there were some issues with range [overlap] with Bourjos and [Torii] Hunter that had to be worked out.

"These guys are playing well, everything from being able to shrink the field with the range we've shown to Dino [Ebel] and Alfredo [Griffin] doing a great job with the guys in positioning."

The Angels have had solid, dependable, efficient defenses before. But it's highly unlikely they've ever put this many first-class athletes on the field at the same time -- starting with Mathis behind the plate and extending through the electric Aybar at shortstop to the incredibly swift Bourjos in center, between Gold Glovers Vernon Wells and Hunter.


Even the pitchers have been getting into the act. Santana, in the seventh inning of his no-hitter, knocked down a bullet and had some brief anxiety trying to find the ball before recording the out at first.

One hitter earlier, Kendrick had made the play that preserved Santana's place in history when he ranged behind second to backhand a hard grounder by rookie Jason Kipnis to throw him out at first.

A highly productive 6-4 road swing through the sweltering East began in Baltimore, where Bourjos made his return on July 23 after missing 11 games with a right hamstring strain.

J.J. Hardy, the first hitter of the game for Baltimore that Saturday, hit a bullet to left-center ticketed for extra bases. Hardy didn't hesitate rounding first, but Bourjos reached the ball with his amazing speed and unloaded a perfect throw to second to nail the runner. Keep in mind, this was Bourjos' first play after missing two weeks.

He used his blinding speed to run down balls in gaps, in his customary fashion, and kept doing that in Cleveland. It has now become routine to watch Bourjos make a highly difficult play look easy, with his clean breaks and the acceleration of an NFL wideout.

His best play of the trip came on Saturday when another leadoff man, Andy Dirks, smoked a drive to left-center. Dirks was thinking about a triple off the bat, and so was Dan Haren on the mound, but Bourjos turned on the burners and ran it down. The course of a game might have changed right there.

"That's a triple and probably a run," said Haren, who later used his instincts to glove a Miguel Cabrera shot and turn it into a double play.

The course of that game certainly changed six innings later on one of the most remarkable athletic plays of the season by Aybar at shortstop.

Holding a two-run lead, Haren put runners on the corners with none out in the seventh. Once again, Bourjos' speed had an impact, keeping Cabrera at first on his drive to the right-center gap.

Victor Martinez stepped up and hit a sharp grounder to first baseman Mark Trumbo, who checked Magglio Ordonez in his tracks at third before firing to Aybar for the force on Cabrera.

The normal play at that point is to throw back to first for the 3-6-3, conceding the run. But there's nothing normal about the way Aybar plays shortstop. He instinctively knew he had a shot at Ordonez, and unloading from an awkward position, with no body behind it, he managed to nail the runner easily at home.

Now with a man at first and two outs, the Tigers went down, and were done when the Angels quickly scored two more carrying the momentum from Aybar's amazing play into the top of the eighth.

Game-altering plays can come in many forms. In the first game in Detroit, Mathis used the athleticism that made him a Division I football recruit (Florida State) to make about as remarkable a play as a catcher can make.

With two on and none out, the Angels leading by a run, Dirks took off for third when a Joel Pineiro pitched skipped away from Mathis down the third-base line. He was on it in a heartbeat, firing a strike from a difficult position to nail the runner and shortcircuit a potential big inning. The Angels went on to win, 12-7.

Strictly in terms of efficiency based on fielding percentage, the White Sox, Red Sox and Rays all have better defenses than the Angels. Those numbers don't cover range and creativity. Your eyes tell nobody is better than the Halos in those areas.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.