Angels determined to shed slow starts
Intensity at camp heightened to avoid third straight subpar April
TEMPE, Ariz. -- If the Angels are to finally get off to a good start, and ultimately end their rut of four consecutive playoff absences, then, as C.J. Wilson said, "We have to start here."
"Here" is the 14 days of workouts that ended Thursday and the 29-game Cactus League schedule that starts Friday, with a 12:05 p.m. PT home game against the Cubs that can be seen on MLB.TV and heard via Gameday Audio.
"We need to start being competitive in here," Wilson added, "like taking some pride out there even if it's just a Spring Training game."
The Angels are a combined 15 games below .500 over their last two Aprils, starts that have put them in holes they were never able to climb out of, and finished Spring Training last year with the worst winning percentage (.333) and ERA (6.56) in all of baseball.
It's no coincidence that they've been pushed harder than ever in camp.
Hitters have taken more swings, integrating a lot of their situational hitting early on. Live batting practice has been re-introduced after a one-year hiatus. Each starting pitcher has thrown the equivalent of a two-inning simulated game. And relievers have been told to attack their bullpen sessions more aggressively.
Jered Weaver, the Angels' ace and probable Opening Day starter, will take the ball for Friday's contest at Tempe Diablo Stadium with the hope of throwing three full innings -- unlike the customary one or two that starters would pitch the first time around.
Seven everyday players will be on the field behind him, including catcher Chris Iannetta, first baseman Albert Pujols, second baseman Howie Kendrick, shortstop Erick Aybar, third baseman David Freese and outfielders Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun and J.B. Shuck. The only one missing is Josh Hamilton, and he'd be there if he weren't nursing a strained left calf that will keep him out at least two weeks.
It's the earliest manager Mike Scioscia remembers integrating the everyday players.
"These last three days of spring, we've been really evaluating these guys' arms and legs," said Scioscia, who will pitch relievers Ernesto Frieri, Fernando Salas and Cory Rasmus behind Weaver.
"On the hitting side, they've hit off a live pitcher for four days. So they've seen a little velocity, but they still have to find that timing. Most guys are going to struggle a little bit. You want to see the basic fundamentals, whether it's right-side defense or how your infield interacts, to make sure there aren't a lot of things slipping through the cracks. And basically we'll get some times on guys running and just get a baseline of where they are, and along the way hopefully win a game. That's what you want to work towards."
Aside from Weaver, starting Spring Training games will be Wilson -- cleared to pitch Saturday after taking a comebacker to the head on Tuesday -- Garrett Richards, Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs, with Joe Blanton likely starting in the three occasions the Angels have a split-squad game.
Minor League starters Wade LeBlanc, Matt Shoemaker, Michael Roth, Justin Thomas, Yeiper Castillo and Jarrett Grube will also be stretched out, piggy-backing off a starter or throwing in some of the Minor League games.
"They're in good shape," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said of his pitchers. "Their arms are in shape, their bodies are in shape. There's a really good mentality going on; very nice vibe going on right now."
After all the wait and anticipation, Angels coaches and front-office execs will finally get to see how the newcomers (Freese, Santiago, Joe Smith, Raul Ibanez) blend in. They'll get to see just how healthy Pujols feels after a season lost to plantar fasciitis. They'll get to see if the 22-year-old Skaggs is ready to take the rotation's fifth spot. They'll get to see how the bench will unfold, with an assortment of veterans (John McDonald, Carlos Pena, Chad Tracy, Ian Stewart) fighting for spots. And, hopefully soon, they'll get to see what Hamilton is like at 240 pounds.
Most of all, they hope to set themselves up for a better start, which they hope will lead to a better finish.
"Our starts the last two years have killed us," Trout said. "We have to figure out a way to prepare ourselves to get out on a hot streak. I always told myself and told everybody that the first couple weeks can make or break your season. Last two years, we came out and struggled a little bit. We have to improve on that."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.