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From one to nine, Angels' lineup shines

It's not just stars delivering big hits in postseason push

ANAHEIM -- Just win, baby. The phrase coined by Al Davis, late owner of the NFL's Oakland Raiders, has been heard lately in the Angels' clubhouse. A commitment to excellence has taken form with a season on the line.

Extending their winning streak to seven games Tuesday night, the Angels vaulted over the Astros by a half-game into the second American League Wild Card spot. A balanced attack supported Nick Tropeano's 11-strikeout effort in pounding the Athletics, 8-1. Albert Pujols led the way with a double, two singles, three runs scored and -- believe it -- a stolen base.

Erick Aybar, the longest tenured Angels position player, tripled and doubled, driving in three runs. The shortstop has been a part of some formidable offenses. This, until recently, was not one of them.

Video: [email protected]: Aybar triples in a pair to pad the lead

"Finally it's coming together," Aybar said. "One through nine, guys are hitting now. It took a long time."

For most of this season, the Angels were a .500 club with half of an offense. Once a pitcher got past Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout and Pujols, it customarily was smooth sailing. If those three didn't hurt you, odds were favorable that it would be an aspirin-free night on the mound.

"It felt like there were some holes there," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said in response to a question, "because there were some holes there."

Just when a dismal August appeared to spell doom for the Angels' postseason chances, something happened in September. Everything changed, clicked. The big three began getting help. Suddenly, the Angels are just two games behind the Rangers in the AL West with their final four games in Texas.

Nobody had a larger role in the transformation of the offense than C.J. Cron, the 17th overall pick in the first round of the 2011 Draft.

Video: [email protected]: Cron hammers a solo homer to tie game at 2

A .198 hitter with a pedestrian .509 OPS on July 3, Cron started crushing baseballs -- and hasn't stopped. He hit .343 in July with a .959 OPS. He batted .321 in August with an .899 OPS. His six homers in September, giving him 16 for the season, have added Pujols-like thunder.

David Murphy, a respected hitter on some dynamic Texas clubs, came from Cleveland in a July 28 swap and gradually got comfortable. His two hits and run-scoring single Tuesday, in the aftermath of his walk-off single in the series opener, gave him RBIs in four consecutive games.

Settling into the No. 5 slot against righties, Murphy, hitting .285, breaks up a run of right-handed bats.

"Behind Albert, his left-handed bat is important with what Mike and Albert contribute," Scioscia said. "He's just a professional hitter. David's best suited to hit behind Albert [against right-handers], and that's how we're going to go."

David Freese, Mr. October for the 2011 World Series champion Cardinals, returned from a fractured right index finger Sept. 1. His presence clearly makes this a better, more confident team. The Angels are 68-45 when he starts, 15-29 when he doesn't.

Video: [email protected]: Freese singles in Pujols to pad the lead

Raising his average from .240 to .260, Freese is batting .333 in September with 10 doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs. His singles delivered runs in the fourth and fifth innings Tuesday.

"David Freese coming back, acquiring David Murphy, Johnny Giavotella coming back . . . no doubt our offense has taken a different look down the stretch," Scioscia said. "Our offense is definitely getting a little deeper."

Carlos Perez, the 24-year-old Venezuelan catcher who came from the Astros in a November deal with Tropeano in exchange for Hank Conger, also has made an imprint. Backing up Chris Iannetta most of the season, Perez came into September hitting .216 and has erupted, batting .351 with eight runs scored and seven walks in 18 games.

Then there is the remarkable Giavotella. Already a fan favorite for his hard-nosed attitude and clutch bat, Giavotella has shown his mental toughness in coming back from vision issues to spark the offense from the No. 9 hole.

Video: [email protected]: Giavotella doubles in Freese to extend lead

Giving Scioscia the effect of a double-leadoff man in front of Aybar, Giavotella is 7-for-15 with three doubles and two triples in five games since reclaiming his job at second base, excelling with the glove.

Aybar, whose two-run triple in the fourth busted it open against Chris Bassitt, has flourished in the leadoff role during the Angels' 11-3 run in the leadoff spot. Aybar is batting .304 since Sept. 16.

Trout, Pujols and Calhoun have combined for 102 home runs -- three more than the 1988 World Series champion Dodgers hit all season, with a guy named Scioscia behind the plate. The trio has driven in 259 runs. They're a mash unit, but they can't do it alone.

Pujols and Trout are era-defining players. But two individuals, no matter how dominant, can't win pennants or World Series alone. That takes a small village of good ballplayers.

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer.
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