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All Hands on Deck for Angels’ Do-Over

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Times Staff Writer

For the Angels, the pennant race starts tonight.

For the first time this season, the Angels can defend their World Series championship with no defenders on the disabled list. They hovered around .500, marking time until they could assemble their forces and charge. With center fielder and team leader Darin Erstad returning tonight, the season truly starts now.

“You kind of get that feeling,” second baseman Adam Kennedy said. “It’s about time to make that run.”

The Angels concluded their 14-day odyssey on a high note Sunday, beating the Florida Marlins, 8-5, to win six of the final eight games on the trip. They’re within comfortable range of a playoff spot, three games behind the Yankees in the wild-card race.

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The Seattle Mariners lead the Angels by 10 1/2 games in the American League West. But the division championship is not a hopeless quest either, at least not yet, because the Angels face Seattle seven times this month.

If the Angels win tonight, behind ace Jarrod Washburn, they will climb three games above .500 for the first time this season.

“It’s now or never,” Washburn said. “If we keep playing .500 ball much longer, we won’t be able to find our way back. We’re showing signs of being the team we know we are and playing more consistent ball. We’re finally showing some signs of life.”

The Angels went 7-5 on their longest trip of the season, losing the first two games in Baltimore and then winning three consecutive series -- for the first time this season -- against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Montreal Expos and Marlins.

“I still don’t think we’re clicking yet,” left fielder Garret Anderson said. “If you’re winning games and you feel like that, that’s not a bad problem to have.”

In the midst of interleague play, this is something good: The AL West drew the National League East this season, but the Angels are the only team in their division not scheduled to face the Atlanta Braves. This is good too: Anderson jammed an ankle while sliding Sunday, but he was not hurt. Tim Salmon fouled a ball off an ankle Saturday, but he pinch-hit Sunday.

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For the first time, the Angels have their projected roster intact, with no mainstays on the disabled list, although shortstop David Eckstein might be out a few games because of a bruised left hand. Closer Troy Percival returned from the disabled list Saturday and earned a save Sunday, his first since May 17. Gold Glover Erstad returns tonight, after missing nearly two months because of a hamstring injury.

“Any time you lose a guy that important, if you can keep your head above water and keep yourself in contention, you have to be proud of yourself,” Percival said.

The aggravating one-step-forward, one-step-back play of the first two months shows signs of morphing into the consistent play of last summer. Ramon Ortiz (6-5) dumped the Angels into a 5-1 hole after three innings Sunday, but he recovered to pitch three strong innings and departed with a 6-5 lead. Ben Weber, Brendan Donnelly and Percival each pitched a perfect inning in relief, with Donnelly striking out the side.

“That was an indication of how we can shorten a game if we get a lead,” Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said.

The Angels held the Marlins to 14 hits in the three-game series. Troy Glaus homered Sunday, and Glaus and Kennedy each stole second base and scored from there on a single. Brad Fullmer stole home, on a missed squeeze play with a pitch in the dirt.

The Angels went 22-20 without Erstad. All was not lost in his absence, as Jeff DaVanon hit .362 and established himself as a major league outfielder.

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“It’s going to be great to have Erstad back in the lineup,” Scioscia said, “but I don’t think we’re going to put pressure on him to say, ‘Erstad’s back, let’s take off.’ ”

That pressure is not on him. It’s on the whole team, starting tonight.

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