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Angels need great starts to make a pitch for postseason play

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A classic Yogi Berra quote about the left-field shadows created by the late-afternoon sun in old Yankee Stadium seems fitting for the pandemic-shortened 60-game season the Angels are about to embark on.

“It gets late early out there,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said, channeling the former Hall of Fame catcher/outfielder. “Two months, man, 60 games, you’re in the playoff hunt right now, in first place with 60 games to go. It’s September baseball in late July, August. Every game matters.”

The Angels open the season Friday night at Oakland with the same sense of urgency every playoff contender has — a slow start isn’t an option. A seven-game losing streak, easily absorbed in a regular 162-game season, could torpedo post-season hopes. So could the loss of a star player or two to the coronavirus.

“In a regular 162-game season, teams win divisions by two or three games, and that’s close,” said pitcher Andrew Heaney, who will make the opening-day start against the Athletics. “In a 60-game season, one or two games is going to be even bigger, more magnified. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

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The same question that dogged the Angels in March follows them into late July: Is their rotation good enough and deep enough to compete in a rugged American League West that features the Houston Astros, who won 107 games last year, and the A’s, who won 97?

Albert Pujols, left, and Mike Trout joke around prior to an intrasquad game July 13 at Angel Stadium.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

The sport’s 3 ½-month shutdown actually helped two key pitchers. Shohei Ohtani and Griffin Canning, who were not expected to return from elbow injuries until late May at the earliest, appear fully healthy and — barring setback — will be available for the entire season.

The hard-throwing Ohtani, who underwent Tommy John surgery in October 2018, will reprise his two-way role, pitching once a week — probably on Sundays — and serving as the team’s designated hitter four or five times a week.

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Canning, who had a platelet-rich plasma injection to address chronic changes to his ulnar collateral ligament in early March, looked sharp in Monday night’s exhibition game, allowing three hits and striking out five in six shutout innings at San Diego.

Rounding out the six-man rotation will be Heaney, Dylan Bundy, Julio Teheran — who is about a week behind because of a positive COVID-19 test — and either Matt Andriese or Patrick Sandoval.

Closer Hansel Robles will anchor a bullpen that appears stronger. Former closer Keynan Middleton returns at full strength after missing most of the last two seasons because of elbow surgery. Ty Buttrey, Cam Bedrosian and newcomers Jacob Barnes, Mike Mayers and Ryan Buchter add depth.

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“Our [starting] pitching is somewhat maligned, but I think it’s better than it’s being given credit for,” Maddon said. “And then you have this bullpen. … I think there’s a lot more talent there than people think.”

There are no such doubts about a lineup that will feature a lethal middle-of-the-order trio in three-time AL most valuable player Mike Trout, the left-handed-hitting Ohtani and Anthony Rendon, once the former Washington Nationals World Series hero returns from an oblique injury.

If Tommy La Stella and David Fletcher can set the table and Justin Upton, Albert Pujols, Andrelton Simmons, Brian Goodwin and Jason Castro provide solid production, the Angels should score runs in bunches.

“It can be a very prodigious offense,” Maddon said, “and I like the fact that we can catch the baseball too.”

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Anthony Rendon smiles after batting during practice July 3 at Angel Stadium.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The short season could mask some flaws, allowing the Angels to overcome a lack of rotation dominance with a deep and effective bullpen, a potent offense and a strong defense, especially on the left side of the infield with Simmons at shortstop and Rendon at third.

But working against them will be a schedule that includes 10 games each against the Astros and A’s and six interleague games against the Dodgers, who appear every bit as good as the 2019 club that won 106 games.

The Angels would have played the Dodgers four times in a 162-game schedule. Now, 10% of their games will be against the National League’s best team.

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The A’s will play six interleague games against San Francisco, which won 77 games in 2019 and lost ace Madison Bumgarner, who signed with Arizona, and veteran catcher Buster Posey, who opted out of the season.

“I’ve always said you have to beat the best to be the best,” Maddon said. “I actually love that we’re playing better teams, that our division is considered very good, and that our schedule is considered tough. That’s how you get better.

Angels outfielder Mike Trout and his wife, Jessica, are expecting their first child this August.

“I don’t think we’ll walk into any ballgame and be complacent and think we can throw our gloves out there and win. We gotta show up every night.”

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The Angels, who won 72 games in 2019, weren’t intimidated by the Dodgers last season, going 4-0 against them for their first season sweep of the Freeway Series. Maddon doesn’t see them backing down from the Dodgers, Astros or A’s in 2020.

“Our goal is to win the division and make the playoffs,” Maddon said. “We’re not just going to show up and be fodder for somebody else.”


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