In the heat of a playoff hunt that they once expected to be a whole lot cooler, those big bad Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim squandered an eight-run lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, 10-8, on Saturday night. The Angels now languish eight games out of the division lead and 3.5 games away from one of two wild-card spots, playing catch-up to even the Baltimore Orioles, who last saw the playoffs during Cal Ripken Jr.’s record-setting games played streak in 1997.
Anaheim may be home to Disneyland and a historic representation of middle-class America’s fleeting suburban dream, but the pleasantness has been absent this summer. Riots broke out in late-July over the fatal shootings of two local men by police officers, as the veil of splendid suburbia was lifted to expose a city stricken with racial and class inequality.
Three months earlier, frustration over the baseball team had already been brewing. A midsummer honeymoon tempered this comparably insignificant unease of Angel fans, highlighted by the dazzling no-hitter of hometown boy Jered Weaver, the breathtaking emergence of boy wonder Mike Trout and the long-awaited resurgence of poster-boy Albert Pujols.
Then August came, and the Angels dropped 11 of their first 16 games. Regardless, Saturday evening’s ballgame hearkened to the memory of more innocent times in Anaheim. The night began with a tribute to the Disney-owned 2002 World Series team, a storybook bunch that Rally-Monkeyed its way to triumph hero over the San Francisco Giants the MLB villain of yesteryear, big bad Barry Bonds.
With a suited-and-tied Michael Eisner taking in their playoff games from his lofty luxury suite, the Angels had already become corporate by ‘02, but the aura surrounding them felt more homespun. They still attached only “Anaheim” to their team name, and core players like Tim Salmon, Garrett Anderson and Darin Erstad had been around long enough to remember being “California Angels.”
Alas, that original title team set the stage for a new era of Angels baseball, when the underdog from Orange County finally felt ready to challenge the establishment power in Chavez Ravine. After the Angels’ infamous most recent name change and massive TV deal, plus years of outperforming the Dodgers in head-to-head and overall competition, owner Arte Moreno culminated the franchise’s transformation with a surprise free agent binge on Pujols and C.J. Wilson (who surrendered seven runs in 4.2 innings to take the loss Saturday). Only the big-name importation hadn’t quite been culminated yet, with ’09 Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke still on the way from Milwaukee.
The Angels’ roster now leads even that of the Yankees with regards to cumulative name value. Their starting rotation includes four pitchers, theoretically still in their primes, who have been staff aces at some point their careers: Greinke, Wilson, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren (who has not pitched like an ace, with a 4.90 ERA and 4.21 xFIP). Their lineup has former All-Stars in Pujols, Torii Hunter and Howie Kendrick, a one-time American League Player of the Month, Kendrys Morales, and the front-runner for AL MVP in Trout. Even the end of their bench has a three-time All-Star, $126 million man Vernon Wells. The name value criteria doesn’t even include Mark Trumbo, who has been the second best hitter on the team with a .373 wOBA, or Ernesto Frieri, who has converted 14 of 15 save opportunities and posted a 2.06 ERA (3.22 xFIP).
With a roster oozing talent, how are the Angels only 62-59? Moreno is asking the same question, and his patience is probably wearing much thinner in the thick of this latest swoon. I tuned into Saturday’s disaster in the ninth inning, after all the game’s runs had been scored. Just by sitting on the couch and staring at my TV screen, I could feel the evaporation of hope from that stadium. The Rays’ Fernando Rodney (whose hat is tilted so far to the side it makes me wonder if wearing one’s hat completely sideways or even backwards is legal in MLB) allowed two baserunners before shutting the door and adding to the bewilderment in Anaheim.
Using one game to predict the collapse of the Angels is as foolhardy as declaring the end to the steroid era. Yet although Saturday’s loss does not spell doom, it surely does bring about uncertainty.
As much as I believe in statistics, I also believe that human beings produce these statistics. And a dejected human being (yes, even professional athletes can be dejected) is a human being more likely to perform below the standards that statistics project for him. Losses like this one, even if they carry the same weight in the standings as any other loss, carry a more severe emotional burden.
How will the Angels respond to the crushing defeat? Will they keep slipping and allow a promising season to disintegrate, or will they snap out of their funk and make it to October? With legitimate questions about manager Mike Scioscia’s job security looming for the first time in his esteemed 13-year tenure, the Angels’ response to this loss could mean the difference between a status quo future and a momentous change of course.
In related baseball news…
The Dodgers had four hits on Saturday, and all four hits were home-runs. They beat the Atlanta Braves, which helps both them and the Cardinals, who defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates. Angels blowing huge lead+Dodgers and Cardinals having successful nights=satisfying day of baseball for me.