ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Don Baylor's return to the Los Angeles Angels got off to an unbelievably inauspicious start when the hitting coach broke his leg while crouching to catch the ceremonial first pitch on opening day.
Just about every game since has been an improvement for Baylor, who is leading the majors' most productive lineup back to the postseason.
Although he deflects any credit, the former Angels slugger and big-league manager known to everybody as "Groove" has his hitters right on track for a memorable October.
"I don't know what attention I'm getting, but I know one thing: I'm having fun watching those guys doing what they're doing," Baylor said. "Guys believe in each other, and guys have worked real hard to get to this spot."
Los Angeles has the highest-scoring team in the lowest-scoring baseball season since 1981. The Angels led the majors with 773 runs and finished second to Oakland in run differential, scoring 143 more times than their opponents — including 92 more runs in the final three months, which gave the Angels homefield advantage throughout the playoffs with the best record in baseball (98-64).
The Angels open the division series Thursday against the winner of the Athletics' wild-card playoff at Kansas City.
The Angels were a solid offensive team in 2013, but they've made a 40-run improvement over the roster that won just 78 games in the franchise's worst season in a decade. A potent offense is what's expected from a club with roughly $509 million committed to likely AL MVP Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, but the Angels wouldn't be on top without remarkable contributions from every spot in the lineup.
Baylor also praises manager Mike Scioscia for distributing that talent in the batting order: Keeping Trout in the No. 2 spot, making Kole Calhoun their everyday leadoff hitter and plugging in Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick at multiple spots.
"Mike had to really just figure out where guys like Aybar and Howie fit in the lineup," Baylor said. "So what I saw (on opening day) was not like what you see today. There's a little bit more consistency with the lineup. Guys know where they're going to hit, and everybody knows where they belong."
Baylor even sees parallels between the current club and the 1979 "Yes We Can" Angels, who made this franchise's first playoff appearance with a heavy-hitting lineup led by Baylor himself. He was the AL MVP that year with 36 homers and 139 RBIs — the only Angels player to lead the majors in RBIs until Trout did it this year.
The 1979 Angels also led the majors in runs, scoring 866 while Baylor, Bobby Grich and Dan Ford all drove in at least 100 runs in a lineup that included Rod Carew and Willie Mays Aikens.
That steady production from an eclectic group of hitters supported a rotation that didn't blow away anybody — sort of like the current Angels.
"It was kind of an offensive machine," Baylor said. "We had Nolan (Ryan) and (Frank) Tanana (and little else in the rotation), so we had to score 5 1-2 runs a game. That was our deal. We knew we didn't have the bullpen we have here this year, so we knew we had to go out and mash teams, pretty much. A lot of 11-8s and 10-9s. But we knew that we could outscore everybody else."
For all of their offensive pyrotechnics, Baylor knows the current Angels' pitching improvements are the biggest reason they're in the playoffs. A markedly improved bullpen and a resilient rotation kept the Angels in contention until they surged in front of Oakland and Seattle with an incredible 17-game offensive stretch from Aug. 26 to Sept. 12, scoring 117 runs while roaring from a first-place tie to an 11-game lead.
"There are certain guys who have not been hot all year, and all of a sudden they've figured it out in September," Baylor said. "It's not what you did in April. Earl Weaver always used to say that the more games you win in April, the less you have to win in September. When I first got to the big leagues (in 1970), the Orioles were up by 18 games, and Weaver said, 'All right, you young guys sit here, and we're going to win by 20.'
"So that's the mentality you have to have in September — just keep that foot pedal down, keep pressing and beating teams, and not look back."