ANAHEIM, Calif. – The missile escaped the orange-tipped gun barrel with a sharp "plack!"
The tiny yellow ball sped across the Los Angeles Angels' clubhouse, some 20 feet in no time at all.
With great enthusiasm it struck its target, which happened to be Brian Fuentes' rear end.
The team's closer turned and grinned. Didn't hurt that bad. He turned back.
"Yiyeee!" Fuentes squealed, leaping from the line of fire.
Players along the left of the clubhouse, where mostly relief pitchers and catchers reside, burst into laughter. Jeff Mathis, the catcher, holstered his toy weapon, clearly pleased with its kick.
If Fuentes' reaction weren't enough, they'd soon have the hard, colorful evidence, when Fuentes lowered his uniform pants just enough to show off the damage.
Nearly two weeks later, the Angels are getting there. The guys that haven't already taken a breath seem almost ready to. They're trying to make it normal, trying to clear their eyes and their heads.
It has been awful. Beyond awful, really. Beyond anything they'd ever much thought about.
They returned to a familiar place Tuesday evening, to a place close enough to home. They'd buried teammate Nick Adenhart on that road trip, and played crummy baseball on top of it, and in their eyes you could see they had no idea how to put those things together, because they just wouldn't coexist.
Right in the middle of it all, they're trying to put together a pitching staff, cover for the loss of slugger Vladimir Guerrero for the next month because of a torn pectoral muscle, and win some ballgames, when for long parts of the day it just seems so inconsequential. They'd come home having lost three games in a row, and five of their previous six. Through early Tuesday night they couldn't even name their starting pitchers for games Thursday and Saturday, and their bullpen ERA was over 8, and help isn't coming for weeks.
In some ways, it's as though the Angels never had a chance to start their season, like it has been muted out of respect for something greater than a few ballgames.
So the calendar turns, and the healing inches along, and the season runs into late April, when teams are establishing their rhythms and personalities.
They're trying. And so the uninhibited laughter that comes with a compressed air-propelled pellet to the butt counts as progress, almost as much as Tuesday's incident-free bullpen sessions by on-the-mend starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana count as progress, and a win later Tuesday night against the Detroit Tigers – even with a near ninth-inning meltdown by the target himself – counts as progress, too.
"I think after the homestand, everybody getting home, getting with their families, that'll help," said starter Dustin Moseley, whose sore forearm put him on the disabled list three days earlier. "The funeral's been done. Maybe after this week, everybody can have some closure to it, as much as you can."
A memorial of flowers and notes and halos still grows on the promenade outside Angel Stadium. The locker in the clubhouse remains filled with gear, as if waiting for its owner.
Meanwhile, the Angels are plucking starters out of Triple-A Salt Lake City to replace the starters they'd plucked out of Salt Lake City. And they're hoping to convince their young relievers that it's OK to throw a strike occasionally, that it's OK to hit a bat, and wouldn't it be nice if a veteran guy like Scot Shields would set a decent example, particularly as the club has five pitchers on the DL.
Instead, Shields has been ineffective. So, even with the Angels getting unexpectedly workable starts from their patchwork rotation, they've routinely lost games or ground in the late innings. And then, just in case there weren't enough moving parts for manager Mike Scioscia, the lineup has been mostly pathetic, batting just more than .200 with runners in scoring position, and just when the club needs a little help.
"I'm confident everything will be back to normal, that we'll go out there and get right," Shields said. "And hopefully we'll get this whole bullpen right.
"You know what, we've gone through a really tough thing. But we're playing the game, you know, the way we've always played it. It's the bullpen. We'd be looking all right now if the bullpen hadn't given some games away. We're never going to put everything completely behind us. We're trying to get back to everyday normal living. It's tough. And it's going to be tough. You think about it all the time. But, there are no excuses for the way we've played."
Apparently, the Angels will try to ride it out. They aren't inclined to sign Pedro Martinez or Paul Byrd or any of the other potential mound fixes. And April is a bad time to get your money's worth in a trade.
"Any team that has pitching," Scioscia said, "has any team they talk to over a barrel."
Three weeks into April, when Lackey and Santana could be pitching again by the second week of May, the Angels are exhausted and realistic but not hysterical. The division does not look especially flammable. So, they'll go with what they've got, what they can scratch together, trust the organizational depth – such as it is – for at least a few more weeks, and show up when the schedule says to.
And maybe every once in a while, just for a laugh, just because they've needed one, they'll shoot their closer in the rear end. Whatever works for the day.
"It goes without saying it's been difficult," Scioscia said. "But, we're going to play baseball. We have a good team."