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Weaver primed to show he's still among game's best

Now healthy, the Angels' ace can return to his spot atop rotation with confidence

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- When the conversation turns to baseball's best pitchers, here's a name that shouldn't be overlooked, but often is: Jered Weaver.

Weaver's omission has more to do with style than substance. Nobody ever confuses him with Justin Verlander or Max Scherzer. There's nothing overwhelming or awe-inspiring about Weaver. But when he's healthy and locked in, the Angels' ace is on that elite, top-of-the-heap level.

In line to make his customary Opening Day start, even as manager Mike Scioscia delays the announcement in his customary fashion, Weaver is coming off a frustrating, injury-marred 2013. Determined to make 2014 more satisfying, like his first seven seasons, he is right on schedule.

Weaver gave two thumbs up to his work on Thursday at Surprise Stadium against the Royals. Across 5 1/3 innings, he allowed two runs and three hits and hit a batter, Danny Valencia, with his 77th and final pitch, striking out five. But it's never about results in Spring Training as much as feel -- and health.

Weaver felt good about his fastball command, offspeed stuff and command. His arm is fresh. Weaver is ready for the impending duel with Felix Hernandez on March 31 at Angel Stadium -- and ready, whether he wants to admit it or not, to show he's still in the conversation with the game's best.

Weaver was 11-8 with a 3.27 ERA in 24 starts -- solid by most standards, but not his. He missed nine outings while recovering from an injury to his left elbow, sustained in his second start when he fell on the mound in Texas.

"I don't get caught up in that stuff," Weaver said when asked if he senses that he has slipped a few notches in the hierarchy of starting pitchers. "People are going to say what they're going to say. I just want to prove some people wrong and go out and battle.

"This is my ninth spring, and it's like all the others. I'm getting myself ready to go to battle."

Weaver is the lead dog on a staff that has a few pups licking their chops, hoping to help the dean and C.J. Wilson form a consistent rotation. It was part of the club's demise last year, but Garrett Richards and newcomers Hector Santiago and Tyler Skaggs plan to turn a negative into a positive.

"I like what I'm seeing," Weaver said. "We think we can be good. You can't think of yourself as the top dog or anything like that. I just think of myself as one of five guys. If Sosh happens to give it to me first, I'll try to set a tone. It's always friendly competition on a good staff, one guy setting the tone for the next guy, on down the line."

Weaver, the ace since 2010 when John Lackey departed for Boston, is 113-60, his .653 winning percentage the highest among active pitchers. Weaver's 3.24 ERA is sixth best in the Majors since his 2006 debut -- better than Verlander, Scherzer, Cliff Lee, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum. Only Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright, Johan Santana, David Price and King Felix have lower ERAs over the past eight seasons.

Weaver has led the American League in wins (20 in 2012, against five defeats) and was 38-13 combined in 2011 and '12. He led the Majors in strikeouts with 233 in 2010 and started the 2011 All-Star Game for the AL, one of his three All-Star appearances. Weaver no-hit the Twins in 2012 and has held hitters to a .234 career batting average.

In six postseason appearances, thriving under pressure, Weaver is 2-1 with a 2.61 ERA.

Asked following Monday's 3-2 decision over the Royals how Weaver can reclaim elite status, Scioscia pointed to the effort he'd just observed.

"He just needs to get back to a lot of the things he did today -- moving his fastball to both sides of the plate," Scioscia said. "He can change speeds as well as anybody. That's the 'A' lineup the Royals had out there, and Weav pitched well. I think he's where he needs to be."

Weaver anticipates one more tuneup, preferably in a camp game with a controlled environment. He got some help from his friends against the Royals, with catcher Hank Conger in sync with the ace.

Albert Pujols and Mike Trout launched homers to dead center at Surprise Stadium -- Pujols' first of the spring, Trout's fourth -- and Trout made a tumbling catch in center to rob Lorenzo Cain.

"It's good to see Albert moving around at first base," Weaver said. "In the [batter's] box, he's more comfortable. It's night and day from last year. Everything [Trout] does is pretty good. It's fun to watch. I'm glad he's on our side."

Weaver is unflappable. There is not a more deceptive or clever artist in the sport than the 6-foot-7 right-hander who looks like a carefree surfer, but is as serious about his craft as a heart surgeon.

"Fastball command was great, late life on the two-seamer was good," Weaver said. "I mixed in ground balls and some flies. Physically, everything feels great. Mechanically, everything's coming along."

The radar gun might scoff at his fastball, but hitters don't. They never know when or where it's coming, the secret to Weaver's success. Finishing an elaborate delivery, Weaver hits precise spots with a variety of pitches that keep hitters guessing. When they do make contact, rarely is it on the sweet spot.

They don't fear for their lives when step in, as they did with Nolan Ryan, but hitters tend to experience the same frustrations when Weaver is done with them.

At 31, Weaver is in his prime -- primed to show he's still one of the best.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for
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