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Angels say it can only get better

Times Staff Writer

The mounting injuries, the offensive funk, and the rotation and bullpen cracks that underscored the two weeks before the All-Star break, when the Angels lost eight of 12 games and had their American League West lead over Seattle trimmed from eight to 2 1/2 games, didn’t deter Gary Matthews Jr.

“You can’t fool anyone for half the season,” the center fielder said. “This team is for real.”

Nor did the slide dampen Matthews’ optimism for the second half, which begins tonight against Texas.

“This team is really balanced throughout the lineup, and that takes pressure off everyone,” Matthews said. “Those are the teams that go really far in the playoffs, because any one player can have a great day, and that can be the difference between a win and a loss.”

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As the July 31 trade deadline approaches, the question of the last three summers confronts them again: Could one player be the difference between the Angels winning the World Series or not? Between making the playoffs or not?

The Angels have overcome injuries, generating more offense with less power, and relying mostly on three starters and two or three relievers to go 53-35 and hold first place for 75 straight days.

But they haven’t been able to shake the surprising Seattle Mariners, and injury-depleted Oakland, nine games back at the break, has a history of second-half surges.

The Angels probably will need reliever Justin Speier, activated today after a 2 1/2 -month absence because of an intestinal infection, and outfielder Juan Rivera, who could return in August from a broken leg, to win their third division title in four years.

And the team with the perennial need for a big bat might actually seek rotation help if Bartolo Colon and Ervin Santana continue to struggle.

“If there’s a move that will make us stronger now and in the future, Bill will do it,” Manager Mike Scioscia said of General Manager Bill Stoneman. “If that doesn’t happen, we’re very comfortable with the 25 guys in that room getting us to our goal.”

Biggest first-half surprise: The emergence of rookie Reggie Willits in the leadoff spot. When left fielder Garret Anderson was sidelined by a hip injury and replaced by Willits on April 28, the Angels were 12-11. With Willits working counts, taking walks, getting on base at a .440 clip and stealing bases, the Angels went 37-16 to push their lead to eight games. A knee injury has slowed Willits, who has two hits in 23 at-bats, his average falling to .312 and on-base percentage to .408. Willits could be dropped to the ninth spot, but even there, he can set the table for the top of the order.

Biggest first-half disappointment: Put Anderson on one side of a coin, Santana on the other, and flip it. Anderson, slowed by injuries for three years, declared himself fit this spring and thought he’d return to his 30-homer, 120-RBI levels of 2000-2003. Not even close. The left fielder injured his hip in late April and has been limited to 40 games, hitting .286 with three homers and 15 RBIs. Santana, considered one of the game’s most promising young pitchers with 28 wins in 2005-06, is 5-10 with a 5.97 earned-run average, has given up an AL-high 23 homers and appears to have lost his confidence. One or two more rocky starts, and the Angels will replace Santana with triple-A left-hander Joe Saunders. Dishonorable mention goes to recently released Shea Hillenbrand, a $6.5-million flop at designated hitter.

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At this pace: Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (.325 with 14 homers, 75 RBIs) would hit 25 home runs, a career low for a non-injury season, and set career highs for RBIs (138) and intentional walks (37). Shortstop Orlando Cabrera (.328, 55 runs, 26 doubles, 51 RBIs) would set career highs in runs (101) and doubles (48) and come within two of his career-high 96 RBIs. Pitchers John Lackey (11-5, 2.91 ERA) and Kelvim Escobar (10-3, 3.19 ERA) could become only the second tandem in Angels history to win 20 games in the same season, joining the 1973 duo of Nolan Ryan (21-16) and Bill Singer (20-14). The Angels (64 homers, 437 runs) would hit 118 homers, their fewest since 1993, and score 804 runs, most since 2004.

Reasons to be excited: Speier, who had a 1.69 ERA in 15 April games, returns tonight, and Rivera, who hit .310 with 23 homers and 85 RBIs in 2006, could return in August. Speier should bolster a bullpen that drops off considerably after Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields, and Rivera’s punch would offset the struggles of Willits and/or Anderson. The four-day break allowed Willits (sore knee), Matthews (hamstring strain) and second baseman Howie Kendrick (bruised finger) to rest nagging injuries and struggling first baseman Casey Kotchman time to recover from a concussion.

Reasons to be concerned: Santana and Colon, who is 1-4 with a 9.07 ERA in his last eight starts, giving up 68 hits in 40 2/3 innings, have been drags on what was considered one of baseball’s best rotations. Matthews, who made a smooth transition from the leadoff to cleanup spot in early May, has cooled in recent weeks, and Kotchman has three hits in his last 40 at-bats, giving Guerrero little protection. The Angels play 22 consecutive games from July 20 to Aug. 12 against contenders Minnesota, Oakland, Detroit, Seattle and Boston.

Moves to ponder: The Angels could add a complementary player, such as a back-of-the-rotation starter or an outfielder with some power, but they probably won’t pursue any blockbuster-type trades. They definitely will consider replacing Santana with Saunders.

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See you in September: The Mariners, with the better lineup, comparable bullpen and improving rotation, edge out the Angels on the final weekend to win the division title; the Angels settle for the wild-card spot.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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