The Red Sox return to Fenway Park on Tuesday to start a nine-game homestand with a three-game set against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
A Red Sox-Angels series in the regular season has become sort of a prelude for the postseason in past years, as Boston and Anaheim have met in the ALDS four times in the last six Octobers.
And though the Red Sox are still fighting for a playoff spot, the Angels are barely hanging on by a thread in the AL West, as they enter play Tuesday eight games back of the Texas Rangers.
The upcoming series is huge for both teams. For the Red Sox, MVP second baseman Dustin Pedroia makes his triumphant return on Tuesday night, and the team hopes to ride some momentum into the final weeks.
For the Angels, any loss coupled with a Rangers win sends them one step further out of the postseason door.
It has not been a dream season for manager Mike Scioscia and the Angels, who have taken a fall from glory after winning three consecutive AL West titles.
And as Jim Gardner of Halos Heaven tells us, a lack of consistent hitting is what?s keeping a veteran Angels team out of the postseason chase.
NESN.com: What has been the biggest reason for the Angels? downfall in 2010?
Jim Gardner: There are a few different factors as to why the Angels aren?t performing as well as most Halo fans expected. Losing their best hitter (Kendy Morales) to a freak injury, slow-footed outfield defense, and a terrible bullpen contributed to the downfall, but the biggest reason is the club?s awful hitting. At one point last season, all nine hitters in the Angels batting order were hitting at least .300. Unless Torii Hunter (.290) goes on a stellar hitting streak, the Angels will end the season without a single batter finishing above the .300 mark. Currently, the Angels rank below league average in each of the slash stats, and have a negative run differential for the first time since 2003.
NESN.com: Do you think Scott Kazmir will ever find his 2008 form in Anaheim?
J.G.: Bluntly, no. Although since returning from the disabled list earlier this month, his last two starts have been encouraging, there?s something wrong with Scott Kazmir. Either physically or mentally, he?s just not the same pitcher he was in Tampa. Rarely throwing his once dominating slider, Kazmir has turned into a nibbler whose pitches must look as big as beachballs to hitters. The low point of his disappointing season came on Juy 10 when he gave up an astounding 13 earned runs in five innings. Kazmir?s long-term value may come from a conversion from starter to reliever.
NESN.com: The Angels made a lot of noise last offseason, in terms of both signing players in free agency and letting some of their more popular players sign elsewhere. What kind of approach do you think the Angels will take this offseason?
J.G.: The Angels have already committed over $93 million towards their 2011 payroll. After big arbitration raises to Jered Weaver, Kendry Morales and possibly Mike Napoli, the Angels won?t have enough cash to sign the big-name, high-impact free agent they need if they keep their payroll at the 2010 level ($121 million). If they can find the cash, the Angels need to get younger and better in the outfield, so they will probably make a run at Carl Crawford. Plus a strong bullpen is a trademark of the Mike Scioscia era in Anaheim, so they should make a couple minor bullpen acquisitions. It?ll all come down to how much Angels? owner Arte Moreno wants to open his wallet.
NESN.com: The Angels have two possible closers, Brian Fuentes (left-handed) and Fernando Rodney (right-handed). Fuentes is currently getting the save chances, but would the Angels be better off in a closer-by-committee situation?
J.G.: Angels? manager Mike Scioscia is a role guy. Each pitcher in his bullpen has their role and regardless of the matchup, and to the frustration of many Halo fans, he sticks with it. He decided that Brian Fuentes was his closer and Fernando Rodney was the setup guy, and that?s that. Actually though, he hasn?t had much of a choice as the Angels? bullpen has been less than adequate, and considering all the arsonists in the Halo bullpen, Fuentes has been the best reliever to enter late in the game. Yet "best reliever" is a relative statement. Until his recent excellent performance (one earned run over his last 19 games), Fuentes had a fluffy ERA of 6.23. A case could be made for Kevin Jepsen to be used more often in high-leverage situations, but as long Scioscia is the manager, the only committee the Angels will have is the "Who?s Buying the Pasta" task force.
NESN.com: Who will be the next Angels prospect to have a breakout season?
J.G.: We?re seeing him right now. Peter Bourjos has supplanted nine-time Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter in center field, and although he hasn?t hit much since entering the line-up, he?s provided much needed speed and defense in the old and plodding Angels outfield. If the Angels make a deal using some of their catching surplus, Hank Conger could have a big impact next season. Last year?s first round pick Mike Trout has created a huge buzz, but he?s still a couple years away. After this season?s Brandon Wood fiasco, Angel fans are going to be highly skeptical of any "can?t miss" prospects, but Bourjos, Conger, and shortly after, Trout, should cure fans of their broken hearts caused by Wood.
Thanks again to Jim Gardner from Halos Heaven for his contribution to this article.