MILWAUKEE -- The Angels' pitching-dominated road trip can't help but conjure "what if" feelings. More specifically, what if Jered Weaver hadn't missed more than seven weeks because of a broken left (non-pitching) elbow, or if Jason Vargas hadn't been on the shelf for nearly two months with a blood clot in his left armpit area?
Together, they accounted for about 18 missed starts for a rotation that had depth issues to begin with.
"That's a lot," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "You lose 18 games from guys who can go out there and win ballgames for you. That's a lot. I think the biggest issue is overall health. When guys can go out there and they're healthy, it gives you a chance to go out there and compete, get deeper into games. When a starter can get deeper into a game, the bullpen's a little more well-rested and they perform at a higher level, as well."
It's a little too late at this point, but the Angels have nonetheless felt the benefits of a rotation composed of Weaver, Vargas, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards, who has stepped up in his third chance as a starter. Heading into Saturday, Angels pitchers had held opponents scoreless for a combined 22 innings and had posted a 1.60 ERA in the first seven games of this road trip. Dating back to Aug. 20, the starters have posted a 1.91 ERA while the relievers have a 1.59 mark.
Still, the Angels rank 27th in the Majors in ERA (4.34).
"I think that's a fair stat," Butcher said. "You still have to go out there, you still have to make pitches, you have to compete. It's part of the game. Injuries are part of the game. But when you're losing two guys that are part of your rotation, it obviously impacts you on some level."
Narron sees Hamilton returning to All-Star form
MILWAUKEE -- Josh Hamilton was leaning against the railing of the visiting dugout at Miller Park on Friday afternoon when he saw a familiar face and sprung up. It was Johnny Narron, the Brewers hitting coach who used to be Hamilton's accountability partner when he looked invincible on a baseball field.
From 2007-11 -- starting when Hamilton made his triumphant return to baseball with the Reds, to his move to Texas, to the 2010 American League Most Valuable Player Award and elite-level status -- Narron was by Hamilton's side, before taking a job in Milwaukee and paving the way for Shayne Kelley to take over.
Asked how confident he is that Hamilton can revert back to his All-Star form next season, Narron said: "It would surprise me if he doesn't go back to being Josh Hamilton. I fully expect him to go back to Josh Hamilton next year."
This is not Hamilton. He entered Saturday -- the second straight day in which he was out of the starting lineup with a sore left shoulder and a migraine headache -- sporting a .234/.294/.419 slash line, and that's despite being on somewhat of a hot streak. He came off the bench to knock a key pinch-hit double in the ninth, setting the table for Hank Conger's home run and the Angels' 6-5 win.
Over his previous five seasons in Texas, Hamilton batted .305/.363/.549.
"Josh is a forward-thinker," Narron said. "He's always hit, and he's going to hit. There's going to be bumps in the road sometimes. I think he's going to work through it and be better for it. … He understands what's going on this year, and he's dealing with it. And like I said, he'll move forward and be better for it. He's always hit, and he'll continue to hit."
Narron believes it's still in there, because Hamilton has shown flashes. The problem is, he hasn't been able to sustain any momentum.
He went 9-for-24 toward the end of April, then got five hits in his next 37 at-bats. He hit .372 during a 12-game stretch that seeped into July, then batted .183 over his next 17 contests. And whenever he gets back into the starting lineup -- Mike Scioscia was hopeful for a Sunday return -- he'll look to build on a .324 average over his previous 18 games entering Saturday.
"He's gone through some streaks of hitting the ball very well and putting things back together again," Narron said. "He's tied to his statistics; he can't eliminate statistics early in the year. They still are there. But if you take some samples of this season, you'll see that he's shown himself to be the true Josh Hamilton."
Narron watched Hamilton grow up in North Carolina, lost touch with him when his addiction issues put him out of baseball from 2003-06, and they rekindled their relationship when Hamilton resurfaced.
When Cincinnati picked up Hamilton in the Rule 5 Draft in December 2006, Narron's brother, then-Reds skipper Jerry Narron, brought Johnny in to mentor Hamilton.
That sparked a five-year relationship that saw Narron serve as a father figure, friend, and in many ways, a chaperone to Hamilton that continued through his Texas years. He stayed in adjacent hotel rooms on the road, monitored the amount of money Hamilton carried in his wallet, established a close bond with his family, prayed with him often and basically made himself available 24/7 -- the same thing Kelley does now.
He's confident the player he knew then will resurface in 2014.
"Josh, his strength comes from his faith and his family," Narron said. "He understands the ups and downs of the game of baseball. He's had some very good streaks this year, where he's hit the ball well, and it'll come back. It'll come back on a regular basis for him."
• Interleague Play at a National League park has kept Angels manager Mike Scioscia from putting the slumping Peter Bourjos in the lineup, opting to go with the left-handed-hitting J.B. Shuck against three right-handed starters. Prior to Saturday, outfielder Collin Cowgill hadn't appeared in a game since Aug. 18, and Joe Blanton hadn't pitched since Aug. 20.
• The Double-A Arkansas Travelers clinched a playoff spot on Friday. At 37-30, they have a three-game lead in the Northern Division of the Texas League. The Triple-A Salt Lake Bees (78-63, with a four-game lead in the Pacific Northern Division of the Pacific Coast League) and Class A Inland Empire 66ers (68-69 overall) also previously clinched postseason berths.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.