Dodgers, Angels Start Second Half Far Apart : California's Pitching Arms Help Hold First in the West

Times Staff Writer

Kirk McCaskill had just walked in the go-ahead run, and there he was, perched atop the mound at Anaheim Stadium, a huge grin splitting his tanned face.

"He's got a good eye," he said, chuckling. "You've got to give him that."

No, McCaskill hasn't lost his mind . . . or his competitive edge, for that matter. He had just issued a bases-loaded base on balls to 12-year-old Timmy DeCinces, giving the son of the Angel third baseman a victory over friend Eric Kay in a simulated game before the bigger boys worked out Wednesday afternoon.

Anyway, McCaskill can hardly keep from smiling all the time these days. He has been having an extra good time about every fifth day as the most impressive performer in an unexpectedly impressive Angel rotation.

Those who have followed the American League West in recent years aren't surprised to see the Angels emerge from the All-Star break in first place. The Angels are usually in the race, owing to a lineup that annually produces enough runs to stay competitive in a division that rivals the National League West as baseball's weakest.

But the California hitters often have had a difficult time escalating opponents' earned-run averages at a pace equal to the Angels' own skyrocketing ERA.

That was certainly the case early this season. On June 15, the Angels' staff ERA was 4.95 and the team was struggling to stay at .500.

The next night, however, the Angels turned Texas knuckleballer Charlie Hough's no-hit bid into a bizarre come-from-behind victory, and since then they have won 17 of 25 games. During the span, Angel starters have turned in two shutouts and a remarkable 10 complete games.

Leading the way has been McCaskill. The 25-year-old right-hander has a team-high 10 wins, and he compiled a 1.79 earned-run average in his last six outings.

Veteran Don Sutton, 41, has proved that the glory days can go on into the sunset. He has won six in a row, and the Angels have been victorious in each of his last eight starts, which include two complete games.

John Candelaria has returned from the disabled list to throw 10 scoreless innings in two starts. And Mike Witt, the most consistent Angel pitcher all season, is 9-7 and has pitched seven or more innings in 18 of 19 starts.

With the exception of the struggling Ron Romanick and one outing by stopgap rookie Mike Cook, the other four Angel starters have a combined ERA of 2.14 in the last 25 games. Romanick lost three of those games and Cook one. Two of the other three defeats were by a margin of just one run.

"It doesn't surprise me when quality pitchers are effective," Manager Gene Mauch said. "We had great expectations coming out of the chute with those guys in the rotation. They're just doing what they're capable of."

The question, of course, is why are they all doing it at once? There are no simple answers, but here's a closer look at this Fearsome Foursome and why they're streaking:

Kirk McCaskill--"I think McCaskill is in about as good a groove as he can get right now," catcher Bob Boone said. "When you have outstanding stuff and you're putting it where you want to, you'll have success."

Marcel Lachemann, the Angel pitching coach, thinks inexperience was the only thing holding McCaskill back.

"He's getting better every time out," Lachemann said. "He's to the point where he's thinking about making pitches instead of worrying about his delivery. And he works his tail off. Mac's always watching tapes of other teams and tapes of himself."

Don Sutton--"Donnie's been just unbelievable since the beginning of June," Lachemann said. "He's the epitome of a professional.

"He's in his rhythm now, but you notice he didn't panic when he was struggling early on. You didn't see him trying to invent anything. He just stayed with his program."

Recently, the program has included throwing his best pitches at the right times.

"With Sutton, it's a case of making that tough pitch when you have to," Boone said. "He has the feel now . . . that command of the game."

John Candelaria--"I was concerned about John until I saw him pitch in Palm Springs that hot, muggy night (June 26 on rehabilitation assignment with the Angels' Class A affiliate)," Mauch said. "When that one was over, I had no more apprehension whatsoever."

He hasn't changed his mind. Candelaria has struck out nine and allowed just seven hits since returning to the club.

Mike Witt--"Witt has one of the best breaking balls in all of baseball," Sutton said. "It's so good, sometimes I wonder if he appreciates how good his fastball is."

If Witt hasn't noticed, opposing hitters have. Witt is third in the league with 124 strikeouts.

"Mike Witt is consistently outstanding," Lachemann said. "No one in the league has averaged more innings per start."

Odd-man-out Romanick hasn't been able to share in the joy. The groove the rest of the rotation has found the last month has eluded him. Romanick can't even find a scratch. And Lachemann is willing to take much of the blame for that.

"Ron hasn't pitched that badly," Lachemann said. "It's a matter of fractions--one out here, one out there. When you're struggling, those things pile up on you.

"He's been a winner before, and he started out good (3-1). I just haven't done a very good job of finding the key to his current problems."

The Angels lost both times that Romanick pitched on the last road trip, but they came home with a 7-3 mark, so his problems have been downgraded from disturbing to curious.

The other two babes on the mound--Witt and McCaskill--give the Angels their first bona fide chance for a pair of 20-game winners since the Nolan Ryan/Frank Tanana era of the late '70s.

They're a matched pair on the field--both have above-average velocity and wicked breaking pitches--and a very odd couple off.

"We're pretty close," McCaskill said. "He's real serious and kind of withdrawn. But he's really one of the nicest guys on the team. I'm more outgoing, and I try to do things to draw him out.

"But the competition is there. He puts numbers up for me to shoot at. I was never a numbers guy before, but now I'm starting to like it. It's an incentive for me."

It certainly seems to be working.

"This staff makes me anxious to jump in the middle of them," Candelaria said before his return to action. "I don't think any of them have tapped their potential yet. With Kirk, Mike and and me, we have the nucleus for a very dominating staff for the next five years or so."

Maybe. In any case, the Angels are 1 1/2 games up in the division race going into tonight's home game against Toronto, and for the first time in a long time, they appear to be winning the arms race, too.

HOW THE ANGEL STARTERS HAVE FARED SINCE JUNE 16

Pitcher ST W-L IP H R ER ERA BB SO Candelaria 2 2-0 10 7 0 0 0.00 5 9 McCaskill 6 5-1 50 36 11 10 1.79 15 45 Sutton 5 4-0 37 24 9 9 2.15 4 21 Witt 6 2-3 51 41 17 17 3.00 11 41 Romanick 5 2-2 29 38 19 18 5.45 14 10 Cook 1 0-1 3 5 5 4 12.00 2 1 Totals 25 15-7* 182 151 61 58 2.87 51 127

* Angel relievers accounted for two wins and one loss during the 25-game stretch in which team was 17-8.

AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST

W-L Pct. GB CALIFORNIA ANGELS 48-39 .552 -- TEXAS RANGERS 47-41 .534 1 1/2 CHICAGO WHITE SOX 40-46 .465 7 1/2 KANSAS CITY ROYALS 40-48 .455 8 1/2 SEATTLE MARINERS 39-51 .433 10 1/2 MINNESOTA TWINS 37-51 .420 11 1/2 OAKLAND A'S 34-56 .378 15 1/2

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