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Keeping it simple pays off for Angels

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anaheim Angels manager Mike Scioscia passed through Baltimore last week, repeating his mantra about the importance of focusing on the obstacle immediately in front of you.

It's a timeworn baseball cliche - you have to play them one game at a time - and yet Scioscia and his team have given it a deeper meaning with their amazing performance this season.

The Angels started the year with six victories in 20 games.

They were supposed to be overmatched in the American League West by the 116-win Seattle Mariners and the pitching-rich Oakland Athletics, but they are tied for first place in baseball's most competitive division after winning three of four in a showdown series with the visiting A's last week at Edison International Field.

It doesn't get any easier from here. The Angels are in the midst of a three-week stretch during which two of the three top teams in the AL West face each other virtually every night until the end of the regular season.

"We know it is going to be a dogfight," Scioscia said of the stretch drive, "but the way you get through it is by worrying about the next game and let the standings take care of themselves."

The hard-fought series against the A's again proved the wisdom of Scioscia's simple approach. The Angels fell behind when they lost the opener of the series. They fell behind by four runs in the pivotal third game. They just kept putting one foot in front of the other and emerged with a ninth-inning victory on Thursday night to pull into a tie with the A's.

Remember, this is the same Oakland team that entered the series just off a 20-game winning streak, but the Angels stayed right on their heels throughout and needed to gain just two games to arrive alongside them at the top of the division.

The mighty Mariners, meanwhile, were getting swept by the last-place Texas Rangers and - short of a miracle - will not be participating in the postseason this year.

Scioscia should be the American League Manager of the Year, unless he talks the voters into choosing someone else.

He says that if he had a vote, he would vote for A's manager Art Howe, who weathered the loss of Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to lead his team to some amazing accomplishments this year. Or Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who has led his tiny-payroll team to a double-digit runaway in the AL Central.

"If you look at not only the turnover Oakland has had - and certainly [general manager] Billy Beane has done a great job of plugging some holes - but to get that chemistry back, especially after some of the tough times they had earlier in the year is impressive," Scioscia said.

"To make the adjustments to get into the position they're in, I think Art deserves a lot of credit. He and Ron Gardenhire have done an incredible job."

Scioscia has been right about a lot of things this year, but on this count he is not. The A's have the best young starting rotation in the game and the Twins, with all due respect to what they've overcome, have won the AL Central in part because nobody else showed up.

The Angels have stared down two of the best teams in the major leagues to position themselves for their first postseason appearance since 1986.

Scioscia's contribution to their terrific season should not be underestimated.

Humility still in style

The Cleveland Browns lost a football game last week because a defensive player was too busy celebrating and drawing attention to himself to realize the game wasn't really over.

Maybe that's the difference between football and baseball. A's pitcher Barry Zito already has had a season to brag about - becoming the first AL pitcher to win 20 games - and yet he seems to have the whole thing in the right perspective.

"It [his record] looks so good on paper, but if you look at what goes into wins as a pitcher, it's not a true, accurate sign of how you're pitching," Zito said. "I look at ERA and other things. It's great to be in a category with all the other 20-game winners, but it's not a big goal of mine. If anything, I'm glad to hold up my end of the bargain with the other two. They've already won 20 before."

He was referring to teammates Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, who along with Zito give the A's a starting rotation that just might be good enough to carry the team through to a world championship.

Maybe then he'll feel more comfortable ripping his helmet off and banging himself on the chest to show everyone how great he is.

Oops, wrong sport.

Not looking ahead

Giants manager Dusty Baker is trying to focus on a tough National League wild-card race, but he has become the subject of rumors that he will leave the team after the season to become manager of the Chicago Cubs.

"It's all garbage, and it's stuff that I really don't need," he said.

"I've got work to do to get to these playoffs. I'm not going to get sidetracked or distracted with that stuff. ... The best thing is for people to leave me alone and let me do my job. There will come a time when all of this will be answered. Now is not the time."

Well, it's not entirely garbage. Baker is not under contract for next year and the Giants - inexplicably - don't seem to be in any hurry to extend him.

If that rankles Baker, he isn't saying so publicly, but he would be a very popular managerial free agent if he ends up on the street at the end of this season.

Schilling marches on

Former Orioles pitcher Curt Schilling recorded his 23rd victory Tuesday against the San Diego Padres, becoming the first major-league pitcher to win 45 games during a two-year period since Jim Palmer won 23 in 1975 and 22 in 1976.

The last National League pitcher to win at least 44 over two seasons was Steve Carlton, with a total of 47 in 1971 and '72.

Schilling is scheduled to make three more regular-season starts and is lined up perfectly to be the Game 1 pitcher in the Division Series on Oct. 1.

The other bookend

The night before Schilling's 23rd win, teammate Randy Johnson dominated the Padres and recorded his 300th strikeout of the season, becoming the first pitcher in history to strike out that many batters in the same league in four consecutive seasons.

Johnson now has six 300-strikeout seasons, equaling Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. Ryan pitched 26 years. Johnson is completing his 15th season.

Somebody asked manager Bob Brenly recently which of his two aces he would vote for if he had a ballot for the NL Cy Young Award. He deferred to the committee of baseball writers who eventually will make that decision.

"It's like having twin daughters and they are both up for homecoming queen," Brenly said.

New team leader?

Remember the furor in May when youthful Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood ripped the under-achieving club for its poor approach to the game? Well, he was right then and he was right again last weekend when he followed up a clubhouse tirade by manager Bruce Kimm with another stinging indictment.

"I can't think of one aspect of the game we are really good at," Wood said. "I tried to do it, and I can't come up with it. Our approach toward defense, toward hitting, toward base running, toward everything, we have to improve on.

"The attitude has to change. You have to get guys who have the mentality of wanting to come out and win every day and play the game right."

Wood entered Friday's game with a 10-9 record and a respectable 3.73 ERA.

With a little help from his teammates, he might be having a pretty good season.

"When you see the things you see day-in, day-out, anybody would get frustrated," Wood said. "It was said in May, and it has to be said again in September. Obviously, things haven't changed. We have been playing like that since Day One."

Watch out below

Pittsburgh Pirates broadcaster Steve Blass thought he was doing a good deed when he retrieved a foul ball and tried to flip it down to a spectator in the stands on Tuesday, but the ball glanced off the hands of the intended fan and fell into the lower seating level, where it hit an 11-year-old girl on the head.

The kid ended up with an icepack on her head, but was not seriously hurt.

Blass invited her up to the broadcast booth for an autograph and an apology.

Blass, of course, was a successful pitcher in the 1960s and 1970s whose career was cut short by a mysterious loss of command - similar to what has happened more recently to pitchers Mark Wohlers and Rick Ankiel. Apparently, he isn't sensitive about it.

"My control," Blass quipped, "isn't what it used to be."

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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