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With .500 in sight, Angels have plenty of incentives

ANAHEIM -- The Angels have a quiet below-the-radar goal as the curtain closes on what has long been considered a disappointing 2013 season: .500.

"It'd be a great achievement," closer Ernesto Frieri said in Spanish. "I think it's something that would make us all feel real proud. All year, we have never been able to get there. I think that the way we're playing lately, we deserve that, to show everyone, including ourselves, that we can."

It may sound silly for a team that entered with World Series expectations to be on such a relatively trivial pursuit. But the fact that a .500 record is even attainable, at 74-78 with 10 games left, speaks to how well the Angels have played over a solid four-week stretch.

Since Aug. 23, the Angels are tied for third in the American League in starting-pitching ERA (3.62), fifth in reliever WHIP (1.21) and fourth in OPS (.776). Over that stretch, they've compiled a 19-7 record, which is the best in baseball.

"Last month has been fun," Josh Hamilton said. "You've seen for a little bit what we're capable of doing."

Depending on your overall outlook, it's the kind of thing that can either make you wonder why they couldn't do this earlier or could make you feel good about 2014.

Or, as Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "Both."

Or, of course, neither.

A lot of people around baseball buy into the concept of momentum, but you'd have to adopt it as a religion to believe it can carry over from the end of a regular season, through the winter, into Spring Training and actually spill over to the following regular season. Of the teams with the 10 best September winning percentages last year -- the Braves, Giants, Orioles, Angels, Brewers, Phillies, Rays, Yankees, A's and Reds -- only six are legitimately still in the playoff race.

So, what, exactly, can the Angels draw from a strong finish to a bad season?

"I'm a really big believer in team chemistry and atmosphere and what that can do to help a team win," catcher Chris Iannetta said. "The longer we're playing with the same guys and the longer we're around this core group of guys, the better relationships we develop. And I think that helps out on the field."

Don't roll your eyes just yet, new-age stat guys. Scioscia thinks so, too. He's been very realistic throughout this positive stretch, saying that winning "is not going to sugarcoat any of the issues that we had during the season" and adding that the success "highlights instead of masking any issues" -- namely, that the Angels need to address their pitching depth this offseason.

The positive Scioscia takes away, to Iannetta's point, is "the terrific on-field chemistry" in terms of "the way the lineup has flowed" and "the pitcher-catcher relationship."

"There's a lot of things that we've done very well that I think are important components of what needs to be on our team," Scioscia said. "And I think it just reinforces that point of where we need to get to -- it starts with pitching and defense."

For the first time all year, the Angels have received consistency out of the starting rotation while simply benefitting from the same five guys taking their turn seven times through. Jered Weaver and Jason Vargas are finally together; C.J. Wilson has been one of the most consistent starters in the AL; and, perhaps most encouraging, 25-year-old Garrett Richards has finally showed the maturity to remain a fixture in the rotation, with a 2.90 ERA in 11 starts since taking Joe Blanton's spot on July 27.

It can make you feel a lot better about the starting-pitching outlook for next season -- and it can make you wonder how different things could've been if Weaver and Vargas hadn't missed a combined 18 or so starts because of fluky injuries earlier this season.

"That's a big blow," Wilson said. "And there's really no way to get around that, because we don't have a guy like Jose Fernandez [the rookie phenom the Marlins called up from Class A Advanced Jupiter] to come up from Triple-A and all of a sudden just be awesome. We need to work on working with what we have and improving what we have. Garrett is going to be a big piece of our success. If he pitches consistently next year, then that's going to be a big thing, because I feel like with Weaver, you know what you're going to get, and with me, you kind of know what you're going to get, too. So it's just a matter of seeing who else we can fit into the rotation."

It's not just the rotation, though.

It's the bullpen, even without Sean Burnett, Scott Downs (now with the Braves) and Ryan Madson. It leads the Majors in ERA (1.71) over the past 26 games, and Frieri has rebounded admirably from the roughest stretch of his career, giving up only one run in his last 17 2/3 innings.

It's the offense, even with Albert Pujols out since late July, Peter Bourjos shut down for the season and Howie Kendrick only recently coming off the disabled list. It's young guys like J.B. Shuck (an AL Rookie of the Year Award candidate) and Kole Calhoun (23 RBIs in his past 24 games) establishing themselves. It's a 22-year-old like Mike Trout (.330/.435/.570 slash line) proving once again he's probably the best all-around player in baseball. It's veterans like Iannetta (.866 OPS since the start of August) and Mark Trumbo (a .308 batting average with five homers in his past 13 games) turning it around offensively.

It's Hamilton.

His first season in Anaheim, the first of a five-year, $125 million contract, has been a miserable one. But he's batting .328 over his past 36 games, raising his slash line from .217/.271/.391 to .245/.302/.433. That's still nowhere near what the Angels were banking on, and he's only hit five homers during that stretch to bring his season total to 21. But it's a positive note, in a season full of negative ones.

"That's important," Hamilton said. "I just want to have good at-bats. If you have good at-bats, the results are going to be there eventually. It's been good, but once the season is over, I won't think about it until at least December or January, when I start hitting again."

And maybe, by the time March and April roll around -- and who knows what kind of changes will have been made by then -- the way a fourth straight postseason absence finished won't matter at all.

Maybe it will have no effect on how the offseason plays out or the way the early part of next season begins.

Or maybe it becomes an important building block.

Maybe reaching .500 for the first time since the second game of 2013 does, in some way, mean something.

"The main goal isn't that," Frieri cautioned. "The main goal is to get to the playoffs. We know that's really hard; there aren't a lot of games left. But it'd be very self-satisfying to be able to finish this season, which started bad, with a .500 record. I think everyone would like that; I think we'd be happier going home."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim