Shohei Ohtani-led team can challenge Astros for AL West title:

Los Angeles Angels & # 39;  Shohei Ohtani (17) Raisel Iglesias (32) and Max Stassi (33) celebrate.

The Angels are in first place.

OK, the 2022 season is only in its third week, but for a franchise that hasn’t made the postseason since 2014, it’s an encouraging start. Fresh off taking two of three games against the Astros in Houston, the Angels (8-5) return to Angel Stadium on Friday for a homestand that includes three games against the Baltimore Orioles and four against the Cleveland Guardians.

With Times baseball editor Hans Tesselaar serving as moderator, Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna and assistant sports editor Steve Henson discussed all things Angels after the season’s first 13 games.

Manager Joe Maddon wasn’t too concerned when the Angels opened the season losing three of four to the Astros. “My takeaway is that we’re very close to Houston,” he said of the team that has played in the World Series three of the last five seasons. Since that series, the Angels are 7-2. So, is Maddon correct?

DiGiovanna: Yes, and winning two of three in Houston this week without Mike Trout, who was nursing a bruised left hand and is expected back Friday night, proved it. That does not necessarily mean the Angels will overtake the Astros and win the division, but their lineup, rotation and bullpen are deeper and more balanced than they have been in years, and they’re good enough to at least to challenge Houston for the title.

Henson: Hate to puncture the optimism of spring with cold numbers, but the Angels finished 18 games behind the Astros in 2021, three games behind them in the abbreviated 2020 season, 35 games behind them in 2019, 23 games behind them in 2018 and 21 games behind them in 2017. That’s a lot of ground to make up and winning two of three in April doesn’t do more than bring them a step or two closer to the dominant team in the AL West.

There’s a lot to like about the offense. The Angels entered Thursday leading the major leagues in runs (65) and tied for the lead in home runs (16) and stolen bases (11). What do you like about the offense?

DiGiovanna: That they’re not one-dimensional. They’re not relying primarily on the long ball. They scored 13 runs in wins over the Astros on Tuesday and Wednesday without hitting a homer. They’re manufacturing runs with speed, situational hitting and aggressive baserunning. They’re “passing the baton,” as managers like to say, taking a walk or advancing a runner with an out and trusting the batter behind them to come through. And they’ve been productive with relatively modest contributions from Trout (.267, two homers, three RBIs) and Anthony Rendon (.200, one homer, four RBIs).

Henson: The Angels do have a multifaceted offense and a deep lineup. Get everybody healthy – for once – and it’d be fun to watch this team punish opposing pitchers. As Mike points out, Trout and Rendon aren’t hot yet. Also, spark plug David Fletcher has been injured, Shohei Ohtani has just a .288 OBP from the leadoff spot, and youngsters Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell should only get better. Figure in budding superstar Jared Walsh and surprisingly prolific Max Stassi and, yes, the Angels just might slug – and run – their way to nipping at the Astros’ heels.

Angels & # 39;  Noah Syndergaard pitches against the Texas Rangers on April 16, 2022, in Arlington, Texas.
Angels pitcher Noah Syndergaard, working against the Texas Rangers on April 16, is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in two starts. (Richard W. Rodriguez / Associated Press)

What about the starting pitching, especially what they’ve gotten so far from Noah Syndergaard?

DiGiovanna: Syndergaard has been outstanding, going 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in his first two starts despite not approaching triple digits with his fastball. His velocity should improve as he regains strength and stamina in his return from Tommy John surgery, so there is no reason to think he won’t team with Ohtani to give the Angels two dominant front-of-the-rotation starters. Michael Lorenzen’s results have been mixed, but his stuff looks good and he appears durable enough to transition from the bullpen to the rotation. Left-hander Patrick Sandoval’s eight scoreless innings have been laborious, but it’s clear his fastball-changeup combination will play. The other two young lefties – Reid Detmers (8.59 ERA) and Jose Suarez (5.19 ERA) – have struggled.

Henson: The top of the rotation of Ohtani and Syndergaard appears locked in. The unanswered questions come deeper. Lorenzen has yet to prove he can withstand a starter’s workload; he made only 28 starts in 297 appearances entering the season and 21 of those came as a rookie in 2015. Sandoval and Suarez show flashes of effectiveness then struggle. Detmers, a first-round draft pick, has upside and he’d better reach it quickly if we’re talking about contending in 2022.

The Angels invested big money to upgrade the bullpen. Money well spent thus far?

DiGiovanna: Definitely. The bullpen as a whole ranked 24th in baseball with a 4.34 ERA entering Thursday, but the three arms in which the Angels invested most heavily – closer Raisel Iglesias, left-hander Aaron Loup and right-hander Ryan Tepera – have combined to give up three earned runs and four hits, striking out 18 and walking two in 18 1/3 innings for a 1.47 ERA. Iglesias has been dominant. Loup has not given up a hit in 6 1/3 innings. Tepera rebounded nicely after two of his first four pitches were hit for homers in the season opener. Mike Mayers looks better after a shaky start. Austin Warren has been solid. If Archie Bradley (6.75 ERA) regains his form, the Angels have the makings of a deep and effective bullpen.

Henson: Ditto definitely. The bullpen was the major focus of offseason acquisitions, and as long as everyone stays healthy it should be a strength throughout the season. Setup relievers who can also enter a game early when the situation calls for it have never been more valuable. Bradley, Tepera and Warren fill the bill. And let’s not forget rookie Oliver Ortega, who has looked good so far.

Angels & # 39;  Jo Adell is congratulated after his home run against the Texas Rangers on April 15 in Arlington, Texas.

Jo Adell is congratulated in the dugout after his home run against the Texas Rangers on April 15. (Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

What should they be concerned about after 13 games?

DiGiovanna: Angels hitters entered Thursday with 129 strikeouts, tied with Cincinnati for most in the major leagues, and they were caught stealing eight times, more than twice as much as any other club. Adell has shown prodigious power potential, but he has 20 strikeouts and one walk in 43 at-bats and his defense: [as a corner outfielder] has been shaky at times.

Henson: Lack of starting rotation depth has dogged the Angels for years and that hasn’t changed. Starters are expensive and risky to sign. Developing them through the farm system is by far the preferred route and the Angels have made progress there. But if the lineup hits to its potential and the Angels are in a pennant race as the trade deadline approaches, we know where the focus will be to improve.

OK, we’ve gone this far without a Shohei Ohtani question. On Wednesday, he was perfect for 5 1/3 innings against the Astros. He gave up only one hit and struck out 12 in six innings. How soon before his throws a no-hitter or even a perfect game?

DiGiovanna: Probably very soon, considering how dominant his swing-and-miss stuff can be and how weak some opposing lineups are. The only obstacle might be Ohtani’s pitch counts, which are usually driven up by his high strikeout totals. I commend Maddon for saying he would not have pulled Ohtani from a perfect game, but will he feel the same way if Ohtani has a no-hitter through seven or eight innings and is approaching the 120-pitch range? I think not.

Henson: Yeah, it was interesting to see Maddon take the anti-Dodgers stance on allowing a pitcher to chase perfection. Ohtani is certainly capable of throwing a no-hitter and would not surprise anyone if he achieves it. Mike is correct in noting that his high percentage of swings and misses drive up his pitch count. A combined no-hitter with Loup and Iglesias wouldn’t be so bad anyway.

Besides dominating on the mound Wednesday, Ohtani also had two hits and two RBIs. He’s batting: only .236, but that figure is at .300 in his last seven games. Are we seeing signs he could have another historic season as a pitcher and a hitter?

DiGiovanna: For sure. Ohtani is a supremely talented pitcher and hitter, and with good health he will continue to play at MVP levels. He’s already seeing more pitches to hit with Trout and Rendon, who sat out most of 2021, batting behind him, and I think he’ll be even more productive if the Angels can find a competent leadoff man and drop Ohtani to the second spot.

Henson: Only an extreme glass-half-empty-guy would project anything other than unprecedented achievements from Ohtani. Getting Fletcher off the injured list and into the leadoff spot would bump Ohtani down where he belongs in the batting order. I think a home run title is a real possibility this season. And I’ll stick my neck out and say he’ll lead the AL in triples again.

Angels manager Joe Maddon walks off the field after arguing a call in a game against the Texas Rangers on April 15.

Angels manager Joe Maddon walks off the field after arguing a call in a game against the Texas Rangers on April 15. (Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

In a game in Texas last week, Maddon opted to have the Rangers’ Corey Seager intentionally walked with the bases loaded. What did you think of the strategy?

DiGiovanna: I was not a big fan of this move because it was so early in the game and it denied Warren, a young right-hander who has already shown some mettle in high-leverage situations, a chance to challenge one of the game’s best left- handed hitters.

Henson: Quick history on walking batters intentionally with the bases loaded. This was the third instance since 1940 and both came with two out in the ninth inning. The first: Manager Buck Showalter of the Yankees walked Barry Bonds – perfectly understandable – and the next batter struck out to end the game. The second: Joe Maddon – interesting! – walked Josh Hamilton and the next batter struck out to end the game. I’m with Mike on this. It happened too early and, anyway, why not just pitch Seager sliders down and in and fastballs up and away? He’d either strike out or walk.

Angels fans have to be happy right now. Will they still be happy in October?

DiGiovanna: Happiness is such a relative term. Don’t I do not know. But they should be “happier,” because their team will have either made the playoffs or made a serious run at a playoff spot, and that would be a huge upgrade over the past seven years.

Henson: And if they do not make the playoffs – again – they can improve their mood by bouncing around the corner to the Happiest Place on Earth.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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