ANAHEIM — When Mark Trumbo is smashing line drives into the alleys and Mike Trout is circling the bases with reckless abandon, it’s tough to remember when the Los Angeles Angels were in trouble this season because Albert Pujols was struggling.
Not only is the Angels’ $240 million first baseman rounding into fearsome form, the youngsters in his lineup are producing All-Star seasons as Los Angeles chases a championship.
The Angels return for the second half Friday at Yankee Stadium against one of the few teams that has been on their level since Trout joined Los Angeles in late April. The Angels have been the majors’ best team since the 20-year-old outfielder was recalled, and they’ve got the fourth-best record in the majors overall (48-38) despite their dismal 6-14 start to Pujols’ first season.
“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve been playing better and better and better,” Trout said. “I think it’s going to continue.”
Los Angeles still trails Texas by four games in the AL West, but the Angels are on track for a playoff berth if they can overcome problems in the back of their rotation and behind the plate.
“Obviously, if we would have just started out like this, we would be in a little different situation,” said ace Jered Weaver, who made his third straight All-Star team despite missing three weeks to rest a back injury. “But we’re trying to play catch-up a little bit, and we’re doing all right. This is how we expected to play coming out of spring training, and we didn’t do that, but our record is still up there.”
The Angels are humming thanks to the talented young duo backing Pujols — or maybe the three-time NL MVP is supporting them at this point.
Trumbo and Trout both made their first All-Star teams in a season that began with Trumbo at third base and Trout in the minors. Trumbo lost his job at first base to Pujols and struggled at the hot corner before finding a role in the outfield, but he never lost his stroke at the plate. He headed into the break batting .306 with 22 homers and 57 RBI.
Trout has energized the Angels from the moment he arrived for his second crack at the big leagues. His Rickey Henderson-esque presence atop the lineup has produced countless superlatives for a guy who won’t even turn 21 until next month, and he heads into the second half leading the AL with a .341 average to go with 12 homers, 40 RBI and 26 stolen bases in just 64 games.
“This isn’t a kid that’s a fluke,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “I’m sure there are going to be rough patches and things any player deals with through the course of a career, and those are going to hit Mike just like they will any player. But as far as what his production numbers are going to be, he has the ability to do what he’s doing now. He’s not playing over his head. He’s just a young player who’s playing to his potential at a very, very young age, and that’s rare.”
Los Angeles finished the first half with back-to-back shutouts of the Baltimore Orioles, who would join the Angels as the AL’s wild-card teams if the playoffs began today. Pujols, Trumbo and Trout all homered, with Pujols improving his numbers to 14 homers and 51 RBIs after failing to homer before May 6.
Indeed, the new pecking order in Anaheim becomes more obvious each week: An oversized poster of Vernon Wells was removed from above the main entrance to Angel Stadium before the club’s final homestand last week, replaced by an action shot of Trumbo alongside the shots of Weaver, Pujols, Torii Hunter and left-hander C.J. Wilson.
Wells, the exorbitantly priced outfielder acquired in a disastrous trade for slugging catcher Mike Napoli two seasons ago, will soon return from injury as a backup with two years and $42 million left on his contract. Thanks to the emergence of Trout and Peter Bourjos, along with the improvements of Trumbo and Kendrys Morales, Wells is likely to be either the majors’ highest-paid fifth outfielder or another expensive write-off for the Angels.
Although the Angels lead the majors with 13 shutouts after managing just 11 last year, only Wilson (9-5, 2.43 ERA) has been durable and consistent in his first season of a $77.5 million contract. Weaver has been his usual dominant self when injury-free, going 10-1 with a 1.96 ERA.
Along with injuries to Weaver and Jerome Williams, veterans Dan Haren and Ervin Santana have largely struggled. Haren is on the disabled list for the first time in his career after finally acknowledging a stiff lower back, while Santana has been wildly inconsistent.
But the Angels’ bullpen has been remarkable since beginning the season as a liability. Ernesto Frieri emerged from nowhere — OK, San Diego — to become Los Angeles’ closer with a 0.00 ERA in 26 appearances, while Scott Downs has been nearly as effective in several roles.
The Angels see no reason to change what they’re doing, particularly during a difficult post-break stretch against five straight opponents with winning records. Los Angeles acquired Pujols to lead its offense, but the slugger always said he was only one part of a talented team with playoff plans.
“Rather than worry about other teams, it’s important to see how we’re playing,” Scioscia said.