SHL Expanson One: California Love
Halfway through September, the teams in the Expansion One division are finally beginning to show some separation in theÂ standings. At the head of the pack are theÂ surprising Angels, who capitalized on a four-game series with the Astros to put themselves in prime position for the home stretch.
After surging into the lead in the beginning of August, theÂ AstrosÂ hit a rough stretch towards the end of the month, losing five of seven games. The beginning of September brought an immediate test, as they traveled to California for four games with the Angels.
Anaheim had likewise lost five of seven at the end of August, but kicked off September with aÂ 9-0 shellackingÂ of the Cubs at Wrigley Field. In a tough bit of scheduling, they had to fly back home to play the next day. As a result, fatigue may have played a role inÂ the series opener with Houston, which they dropped by the score of 6-3. The normally reliable Dean Chance had a subpar start for the Angels, giving up five runs, walking five and striking out only three in 6.2 innings of work. The Houston attack was led by Lance Berkman and Mitch Melusky, while pitcher J.R. Richard contributed with a single and a double of his own.
The following day, the Angels had gotten any lingering jet lag out of their systems, and they wreaked vengeance on the Astros in aÂ vicious 15-1 pounding. Mike Napoli hit a pair of home runs, including a no-doubt-about-it grand slam in the fourth, and Mark Teixeira recorded four RBIs as well. John Lackey went seven strong innings, while his counterpart, Houstonâ€™s Mike Scott, was bounced midway through the fourth.
Compared to the one-sided onslaught in the second game, both of the next two matches featured plenty of offense from both teams. The two squads combined for 35 runs in two nights, but after all was said and done, the Angels had taken them both.
Thursdayâ€™s game was a real see-saw affair, in which the pitchers played straight-man to the protagonist batters. After falling behind by a single run in the second inning, Anaheim got four tallies in the third on a pair of two-run homers by Teixeira and Leon Wagner. Not satisfied with this, they followed it up in the fourth inning with four more. This time, all four runs came courtesy of Jason Thompsonâ€™s grand slam.
The 8-1 lead seemed secure, but the Astros pressed the issue with a big inning in the top of the fifth. A Cesar Cedeno double scored a pair, and Carlos Beltran and Jose Cruz each deposited a two-run homer into the seats. In two short innings, the score had gone from 1-0 Houston to 8-7 Anaheim. Any further drama, however, was snuffed out by Angels reliever Donnie Moore, who took over in the fifth and pitched superlatively for the rest of the evening. In 3.1 innings, he allowed only one hit, while in the meantime the Angels put up two more runs for insurance. The final score was 10-7, with Moore receiving a much-deserved W.
Stung after two straight defeats, the Astros came out swinging in the fourth game of the series. Berkman tripled in a pair of runs in the first, and Jeff Bagwell singled home two more in the second as the visitors jumped out to an early 5-2 lead. They tacked on a sixth run in the top of the seventh, and with Roy Oswalt still going strong, the game seemed to be in hand.
In the bottom of the seventh, however, the tide turned. Napoli led off with a double, and Jim Edmonds was walked intentionally. Jim Fregosi came next and delivered a triple to right-center, scoring both. Fregosi was then brought home on a sacrifice fly by the next batter, Frank Robinson. The score was 6-5, and only one Angel had been retired. Bobby Grich singled, Tony Phillips singled, and Teixeira walked to load the bases. After a pop-out by Thompson, Oswalt was just one out away from escaping with the lead. Unfortunately for him, that batterâ€”Leon Wagnerâ€”had different ideas. On a 3-2 pitch, Wagner unloaded a grand slam deep into the night, giving Anaheim a 9-6 lead and sending the home crowd into hysterics.
Not yet satisfied, Napoli came next and walked. Edmonds, facing reliever Larry Andersen, doubled down the right field line. Napoli chugged all the way around the bases and beat a throw home to make it 10-6. Fregosi came next, and came through again, this time with a single to score Edmonds. The next batter was retired, but the damage had clearly been doneâ€”seven hits and nine runs, six of them coming with two outs. Houston, stunned by the turn of events, managed just a single run in the eighth.Â The final score was 11-7; the Angels had won three games out of four.
Since that series, the Angels have continued their winning ways, taking six of their last eight. For that, they have their hitters to thank. In the month of September, five regulars have an OPS over 1.000. These men are led, as always, byÂ catcher Napoli, who has posted an other-worldly line of .457/.627/1.343 in 12 games. Whether or not the Angels can maintain their division lead down the stretch, Napoli deserves consideration for the MVP award. Without his contributionâ€”the fourth best VORP in the entire leagueâ€”the Angels would be nowhere near the top of the leaderboard.
As always, questions remain for this team. If they are to win the division, theyâ€™ll have to navigate a difficult schedule down the stretch. Besides four games on the road against the talented and dangerous Mets, they have away series with the Pirates, Tigers, Yankees and Twins still to come. On the positive side, though, they finish the season with four home games against lowly Texas, leaving Houston and New York to battle one another.
In an unpredictable division with no real powerhouse, thereâ€™s no reason why the Angels shouldnâ€™t come out victorious. Whether or not they can do so will depend on their play on the road (31-34 so far) and their offenseâ€™s continued ability to carry the load.Â