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Momentum swings to depleted Halos

Momentum swings to depleted Halos

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ARLINGTON -- The projected return of Ervin Santana to the Angels' rotation after he passed a test in a Minor League rehab start on Sunday night in Arizona is another indication that momentum has swung back in the direction of the two-time reigning American League West champions.

In a season of emotional upheaval and physical distress, with a crazy-quilt pitching staff in need of constant patching and reinforcement, the Angels have done something wholly remarkable.

Embarking on a three-game American League West showdown series with Texas at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, manager Mike Scioscia's resilient troupe has a 1 1/2-game division lead over the Rangers -- and the best road record in the league.

That road margin might be mere percentage points over the Yankees with two fewer road games, but the Angels' 21-17 record in unfriendly environs is an achievement that speaks volumes about their collective will -- and unmatched depth.

Remember, this is the team that led the Majors last year with 50 road wins -- matching their home number. Road performance historically is a measure of a team's chemistry and mental toughness.

"We have enough talent in position players in this organization to put a second team on the field," Gary Matthews Jr. said. "And it might finish second in the division."

The Angels just played nine games in National League parks in Interleague Play -- facing the Dodgers, Rockies and Giants, three of the league's hottest clubs -- and won eight times.

This happened with Vladimir Guerrero, the linchpin of the offense the past five seasons, reduced to a pinch-hitting role. With no designated hitter available in those nine games, and with Guerrero still not ready to play right field in his recovery from a pectoral muscle tear, the Angels averaged 7.1 runs in those nine games.

They've won 12 of their past 15, taking the measure of quality opposition with only three-fifths of their original rotation intact and with their two setup artists from last season, Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo, unavailable.

"After everything we've gone through -- the death of a teammate [Nick Adenhart], an unstable rotation, West Coast travel that is much more difficult than what other teams have -- we should be happy to be where we are," Matthews said. "We've been through a lot.

"Without the depth we have, there's no way we could have done this. A lot of guys have stepped up and performed."

Power has emerged throughout the lineup, with Torii Hunter -- a viable MVP candidate heading into July -- leading the way along with Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli.

These are not the Punch-and-Judy, slap-and-dash Angels of the public's perception. Even the game's insiders don't seem to grasp that this team can beat you with thunder as well as with the lightning provided by the likes of Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis.

Another weapon, Howard Kendrick, appears ready to come back from Triple-A Salt Lake and reclaim his second base job, even though Izturis has played close to an All-Star level there.

The Angels have so much depth, as alluded to by Matthews, they really could field a quality Major League lineup with backups.

Here is how that unit might look: 1. Matthews, CF; 2. Reggie Willits, RF; 3. Izturis, SS; 4. Brandon Wood, 3B; 5. Robb Quinlan, LF; 6. Terry Evans, DH; 7. Jeff Mathis, C; 8. Sean Rodriguez, 2B; 9. Matt Brown, 1B.

That's if you have Mike Napoli starting over Mathis. The two catchers are about as even as it gets: Napoli providing tremendous offensive production, Mathis' defensive skills with few equals.

It was Hunter, in that playfully endearing manner of his, who pointed out that if you combined the best of Napoli and Mathis, "you'd have Johnny Bench." And he's pretty close to the money.

Mathis' defensive skills and athleticism are vastly underrated. A familiar pattern has developed with him with respect to his offense. When he's getting consistent playing time and feeling confident, he hits. He'll never be a threat like Napoli -- who is as lethal as it gets when he finds his groove -- but Mathis has the ability to hit in the .250 range. He's especially dangerous in clutch situations, where he stops thinking and lets his athletic ability kick in.

Any hitter will tell you there's a lot of truth in Yogi Berra's statement that you can't hit and think at the same time. Paralysis through analysis can afflict any hitter, even one as gifted as Kendrick. When he lets his talent flow, he generally flourishes. When he worries too much about technical flaws and tries to please skeptics with a more patient approach, he can fall into a trap.

"If you're worrying about working counts and you let a first-pitch fastball in your wheelhouse go by," Hunter said, "you're only hurting yourself. A lot of times, that first pitch is going to be the best one you see."

Hunter, for example, is batting .462 and slugging .846 with 26 swings at first pitches. Figgins is hitting .479, Rivera .448, Abreu .375 and Kendrick .333 with the count 0-0.

Patience and discipline are fine qualities, but bashing a first-pitch fastball to a gap or over a wall isn't such a bad thing, either.

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

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