ANAHEIM, Calif. – The clubhouse had cleared out, most of the Los Angeles Angels dressing themselves and leaving before the stench of their latest loss clung to their street clothes, too. Mike Trout was still there, thumbing through his phone until he stumbled upon a video he had to show Torii Hunter. He walked over to Hunter's locker and hit play. Trout grinned.
"Walkoff," he said, a tinge of wistfulness in his voice, as if he wished he were talking about the Angels. Instead it was the Baltimore Orioles mobbing Nate McLouth at second base, and Buck Showalter standing on the top step of the dugout sponging it in, and this team nobody gave a chance celebrating like maniacs. And the 21-year-old Trout, newly minted as the best player there is, had to watch it, even as his team nursed its latest hangover.
Whether he knew it or not, Trout's willingness to brush off Los Angeles' third consecutive loss to the surging Oakland Athletics personified the Angels' attitude following Wednesday's 4-1 defeat. No panic. No concern. No fear. Not with the second wild-card leaders 3 ½ games ahead, the A's 5 ½ games up and a torture chamber of 19 games to bridge at least one of the gaps.
At least nothing publicly, which makes sense, because any alarmism at this juncture would draw greater attention to a simple truth: Trout is having one of the best seasons in history, Albert Pujols has spent the last four months as his prime self, Hunter is fountain-of-youthing, plenty more have cobbled together great individual seasons and somehow the Angels stand only 11 games over .500 and need a great surge to save themselves from wasting it all.
Three days ago, the Angels were the hottest team in baseball, primed to vault the A's after sweeping them in Oakland to start a six-game winning streak. Since then, a trio of rookie starters has limited them to four runs in 21 2/3 innings, including eight shutout Wednesday from A.J. Griffin, who as recently as two weeks ago was pitching in Triple-A because Oakland's rotation options were better. The $55 million A's have gone into the house of the $160 million Angels, ransacked the living room, robbed the jewelry from the safe and left the water running to add injury to insult.
"We're just up and down," Angels reliever LaTroy Hawkins said. "It's hard to put your finger on it. One day we pitch well and can't hit. Another day we hit the [expletive] out of the ball and can't get nobody out. It's not for lack of effort. Remember, it's only been three games. Before that we won six in a row.
"Win [Thursday], save a little grace, go to Kansas City, take care of business and we'll be having a different conversation Sunday. Oakland did it, didn't they? Last week, we took three from them. Then they went to Seattle and took care of business, and they've come here and taken care of business. It's not hard."
Hawkins, of course, owns a different perspective than most. He was with the Colorado Rockies in 2007 when they won 21 of 22 games to reach the World Series.
"And it was a team," Hawkins said, "that didn't have even close to the talent on this team."
That's the thing about these Angels: Look at the roster and the names dazzle. Peep the stats and they sparkle. The offense should make up for a spotty bullpen that some Angels players blame for the struggles. The starting pitching is deep and talented enough to carry a roster that can't score runs like the Angels do. They're not defensive butchers. Manager Mike Scioscia, while wound tight after a regime change installed new general manager Jerry Dipoto and significantly lessened his power, has lost neither the clubhouse nor his mind trying to parse the inconsistencies.
The Angels win. Then the Angels lose. And they can't do enough of the former to make up for the latter.
"We still have a chance to catch 'em, but we've got our work cut out for us," Scioscia admitted. "Every game that ticks off puts more focus on the next game."
Nineteen games remain. If the New York Yankees and Orioles each win 10 of their remaining 20 games, that puts the second wild-card threshold at 90 victories. To reach that, the Angels would need to go 13-6. Of their 125 stretches of 19 games this season, they've gone 13-6 only 23 times.
And it's why panicking now would be fair, would be reasonable. The Angels' schedule doesn't get a whole lot better. Brett Anderson, their opponent Thursday afternoon, is as hot as any pitcher in the game. Kansas City is actually playing fantastic baseball. Beyond that, they've got six games against first-place Texas, six against a competitive Seattle team and three against Chicago, the AL Central leader.
This is not going to be easy, not with the AL East leaders (plus Tampa Bay) to jump, not with Detroit in striking distance, not with inconsistency as much their hallmark as achievement. With so much at stake – the money spent on Pujols and the splendor of Trout's season and owner Arte Moreno's all-in bet primed to start off bust – these 19 games mean more to the Angels than just the 2012 season. No playoffs will cause a chain reaction, whether it's Scioscia's ouster or Dipoto shaking up the roster or Moreno doubling down with the Angels' TV cash and going full Yankees instead of this half-measure.
"I'm not panicking," Hunter said. "To say we're in a funk or anything like that – I can't. I just can't say it. We'll be OK."
He'll keep telling himself, too, because that's what ballplayers do: insulate themselves from a reality in which winning 21 of 22 is the anomaly, the miracle, and not the cure-all. They learn to drown out the bad, like the lone voice that resonated Wednesday night inside the big cavern that is Angel Stadium. Amid more empty seats than Clint Eastwood could bear to address, watching this Los Angeles Angels season taking a clockwise ride down the commode, one man wailed and broke the silence of disillusionment.
"Youuuuuuuuu suuuuuuuuck," he bellowed, aiming his taunts at the Oakland A's standing in the batter's box but, more realistically, watching them attach to the home team in the sparkly whites. For the third consecutive night, the Angels lost to the Little A's That Could. Their deficit grew. Their urgency heightened. The only walkoff they saw was on a phone 3,000 miles away.
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