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Angels build winning mentality with satisfactory start

Halos on positive track in 2014 with reinforcements on their way

ANAHEIM -- The grueling season is only a quarter of the way complete, so nobody's puffing their chest out or getting ahead of themselves or hardly leaving a moment for self-satisfaction. But given recent history, and the overriding focus since the dawn of 2014, the following is at the very least worth noting:

The Angels haven't buried themselves.

"We're on the right track, as opposed to last year," Mike Trout said. "We're playing good baseball; we're winning games that we should win."

Trout's Angels were 26-20 -- six games above .500 for the first time in 20 months -- as they embarked on their seventh day off of the first eight weeks, winning 10 of their last 13 games and each of their last four series.

That's a seven-game improvement from where they were through 46 games in 2013 and a five-game improvement from where they were through 46 games in 2012, two promising seasons that were spoiled by brutal Aprils.

They've held their heads above water despite an offense that was without both its leadoff hitter (Kole Calhoun) and cleanup hitter (Josh Hamilton) for more than a month, and despite a bullpen that still doesn't have two of its most important relievers (Sean Burnett and Dane De La Rosa).

And now that they're getting healthier -- Calhoun and David Freese returned within the previous two days, De La Rosa and Burnett should both be back in less than a week, and Hamilton hopes to be activated by Monday -- there's reason to believe the Angels' best baseball is still in front of them.

"It's nice coming to the clubhouse expecting to win," Angels ace Jered Weaver said. "We have that winning mentality back, and we have a great group of guys, man -- guys who want to battle and know what it takes to pull out victories. I think we're seeing what we can do, and if our pitching staff keeps throwing the way that we're throwing and the offense keeps picking us up, we're going to hopefully keep this rolling."

If you want to boil the Angels' successful start into one reason, you can: Starting pitching.

Weaver has gradually regained command and strength to get back to his dominant ways, posting a 1.70 ERA in his last seven starts and coming off a complete-game two-hitter against the Astros. C.J. Wilson has remained consistent, with a 3.16 ERA while averaging nearly seven innings per start. Garrett Richards is emerging into one of the best young pitchers in the game, going 4-1 with a 2.90 ERA. Tyler Skaggs, 22, has five quality starts in nine outings. And Matt Shoemaker has beaten Cliff Lee and David Price in two starts since temporarily taking Hector Santiago's rotation spot.

The Angels have a 3.45 ERA from their starters this year, good for eighth in the Majors entering Thursday. Last year, the rotation had a 4.30 ERA and ranked 22nd.

"It's been pretty good," Wilson said. "The starting pitching has, I feel like, turned a big corner from last year."

The Angels have their concerns, sure. The bullpen sports a 1.36 WHIP that's lower than only 10 Major League teams. Santiago -- 0-6 with a 5.19 ERA in his first seven starts -- is in Triple-A trying to figure things out. Freese and Raul Ibanez are batting a combined .175. And the division-rival A's look unstoppable so far, leading the Majors in winning percentage (.652) and blowing everybody out of the water in run-differential (plus-99).

But the Angels' peripherals are favorable, too.

They rank fourth in the Majors in run-differential at plus-44, a mark that suggests they should be 27-19 and points to the fact they've played even better than their record.

Trout is still waiting to get hot, sporting a rather pedestrian .270/.361/.511 slash line to go along with an American League-leading 56 strikeouts.

And the Angels have struggled in two areas that historically balance out over the course of a season, losing eight of 14 one-run games and batting only .240 with runners in scoring position. Angels manager Mike Scioscia points to the high volume of opportunities they've had with runners in scoring position -- 497 plate appearances, third-most in the AL -- and sees it as a sign that the hits will soon fall more frequently, particularly for an offense that could be at full strength in four days.

He looks around, and sees a team that's doing the little things a lot better.

Scioscia believes the Angels are running the bases "as well as any team I've ever been around," and that's saying a lot considering how his club won games in the early 2000's. They're tied for second in the AL in double plays turned, a major point of emphasis in Spring Training. And they're tied for fifth in the Majors in defensive runs saved after ranking 27th last year.

The Angels currently lead the Majors in Wins Above Replacement. Based on calculations, they've had the best offense, defense and baserunning in the AL so far this year -- after a Spring Training in which the Angels attacked the fundamentals more aggressively than in any of Scioscia's 15 years as manager.

"We've talked about it since Spring Training -- it's a different atmosphere in here," catcher Chris Iannetta said. "Guys are working a lot harder. There's a renewed work ethic. Not that people were slacking off in the past; it's just a new commitment to working hard and going about things the right way. People are putting a lot of emphasis on that. We brought some new faces in. That changes the environment of the clubhouse and the chemistry of the team for the better. We're just in a good spot right now."

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