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High-flying Angels touch down at Fenway

By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / July 28, 2006

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Curt Schilling had a question just before he wheeled his computer case out of McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, Calif.

``When's the last time we had a day off?" he wondered.

Told it had been just a couple of weeks since the All-Star break, Schilling said, ``Feels like a month."

Playing 14 straight days with two cross-country trips squeezed into a six-day span can make time drag even for the best teams, but with a day off at home yesterday, the Red Sox presumably will be refreshed tonight when they open a three-game series against the Los Angeles Angels.

A heightened state of readiness is advisable against the Angels, the last team in the American League the Sox have seen this season and one that couldn't ask for a better time to introduce itself. The Angels arrive as the hottest team in baseball outside of Minnesota, having gone 17-5 in July and are just a half-game behind the Athletics in the West.

Even without the 2005 Cy Young Award winner, Bartolo Colon -- who has won just one game all season because of a bad shoulder and was pulled from his start after one inning Wednesday against Tampa Bay after feeling a ``pinching sensation" in his elbow -- the Angels will still be throwing two of the league's best this weekend in terrific matchups. Unbeaten rookie sensation Jered Weaver, winner of his first seven major league starts, is scheduled to face Josh Beckett tomorrow afternoon; Sunday night (the time has been switched to 8:05 for the benefit of ESPN) Schilling is due to face righthander John Lackey, who ranks third in the league with a 2.89 earned run average, one of only three who qualify in the AL with a sub-3.00 ERA.

``Lackey is phenomenal -- he's gone under the radar," Schilling said. ``He's dealing. Weaver? He's Fernando."

Schilling was referring not to the ABBA song, but to Fernando Valenzuela, the Dodger lefthander who touched off the LA phenomenon known as Fernandomania by winning his first eight starts in 1981. One of Valenzuela's catchers that year was Mike Scioscia, now the Angels manager.

Weaver is the first pitcher since Valenzuela to win at least his first seven and has not allowed more than two earned runs in his victories (hence the 1.15 ERA). He has yet to inspire a crazed reaction, though he may have moved Angels general manager Bill Stoneman to trade Weaver's big brother, Jeff, a $9 million bust as a free agent signing.

Tonight's matchup isn't too shabby, either, as the Sox throw their own unbeaten rookie, lefthander Jon Lester (5-0) -- who gave up five runs last Sunday in front of the home folks in his native Seattle, but escaped with a no-decision -- against righthander Kelvim Escobar, the onetime Blue Jay recently liberated from the disabled list (July 22), where he'd been parked with an inflamed elbow.

But as impressive as the Angels' pitching has been, a revived offense has carried them to the top of their division. Fresh from a 20-hit, 15-run dismemberment of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Angels are averaging 6.2 runs a game this month, hitting .307. Vladimir Guerrero emerged from a protracted slump to play like his free-swinging, All-Star self (.316, 20, HRs, 78 RBIs), but Venezuelan outfielder/DH Juan Rivera has been the team's hottest hitter, batting .366 with nine home runs and 22 RBIs this month.

With highly touted rookie infielder Howie Kendrick, who has 11 hits in his last six games, including his first big league home run, living up to advance billing, and Orlando Cabrera, the former Sox shortstop who received a hero's welcome here when he returned for the first time, setting a club record by reaching base by hit or walk in 63 straight games (longest such streak since Ted himself went 84 straight in 1949), there appears to be less urgency for the Angels to trade for a big bat. Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, and Miguel Tejada have been prominently mentioned in the last week as possible fits for the Angels, just as Manny Ramírez was last winter, when he seemed bent on finding an escape route out of Boston.

Even after their hot month, though, the Angels rank just 11th in the league in runs, 12th in home runs, and 11th in on-base percentage. They also have done a first-to-worst in fielding percentage, committing 81 errors, a number exceeded only by Milwaukee (84) in the majors.

``We haven't seen them, but they haven't changed much," Schilling said. ``They're a good offensive team, an aggressive offensive team. I thought they'd be better than they were. They're so stacked."

But the Angels have not played well here in recent years -- they're 4-11 the last three seasons in Fenway Park -- and their discomfort level isn't likely to improve this weekend, especially against Beckett and Schilling, both of whom won in Oakland this week.

Schilling, while praising Minnesota's combination of Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, saying no one wants to face that pair in a short series, said it's much the same for teams having to go through the Red Sox.

``That's how I felt in Arizona -- you didn't want to see RJ [Randy Johnson] and I -- and I look at us [Schilling and Beckett] the same way," Schilling said. ``There are only four 13-game winners in the big leagues, and two of them are here. And I don't think either one of us has come close yet to running off a streak. I don't think either one of us has pitched dominant baseball yet.

``I was disappointed [in his last start, going just six innings, though he won], but I'm encouraged by the fact that my velocity is going up. The only mistake I made was trying to finesse. I probably had the most 0-and-2 counts I've had all year -- nine. I threw almost half of my pitches with two strikes, over 40 pitches with two strikes, and an enormous amount of them were offspeed."

If Schilling feels as strong Sunday night as he did in Oakland, he's not liable to take the same approach.

The Sox, 8-6 since the All-Star break, begin the night 1 1/2 games ahead of the Yankees in the East and in sole possession of first place for 40 days and 40 nights. They're also back home, where only the Twins (37-11, .771) have a higher winning percentage than the Sox (32-13, .711).

With the Sox fresh, reloaded, and rearmed, an opponent riding a Laguna Beach-sized wave into town, national TV cameras set up for both tomorrow (Fox) and Sunday, trade rumors swirling just before the deadline, more sellout crowds packing the place, and the Commish, Peter Gammons, back home and on the mend, the Fens hold the promise of a little hardball heaven in these last few days of July. Looking for a better way to spend the weekend? Good luck.

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