ANAHEIM, Calif. – Look at what we have here. A late-August series between reputed juggernauts from the East and West, a pair of star-, revenue- and payroll-driven franchises, a scant 4½ games separating them in the American League wild-card race.
One approaching desperate. The other having left desperate behind and proceeded directly to disgrace, flamethrower and surrender.
The Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox met here Tuesday evening beneath an orange-blue sky and with a rainbow aflame beyond left-center field. Also overhead, ruminations on the job security of the managers, endless speculation on what the winter might bring, the relative moods of franchise owners and the specter of a third consecutive dark October for both.
The game doesn't have much patience for character flaws or professional imprecision or time spent on the disabled list. It does not bow to guaranteed, nine-figure contracts or dalliances with the luxury-tax threshold. Instead, it rewards consistency and composure. And, oh yeah, it rewards pitching.
So, in a series one might have presumed to be a stirring preview of October, or perhaps a preview of a preview, or at least have one team holding a playoff spot or close to one, it's not that at all. All that money, all those grand plans, all the promise of organizational revivals, and what you had was one team (Angels) hoping to play itself back into contention and the other (Red Sox) playing toward 2013. Maybe 2014.
Funny how things go sometimes. Ask the Philadelphia Phillies or the Miami Marlins. Ask the Detroit Tigers.
Hell, ask the Los Angeles Dodgers, who just loaded up on players from Philadelphia, Miami and Boston and now are straining for runs in, of all places, Colorado. Stars sell jerseys and tickets, but sometimes they won't win you games, not by themselves and not from the DL.
And not without, you know, pitching.
What follows is a scene like that late Tuesday afternoon in the visitor's clubhouse at Angel Stadium. Bobby Valentine was in an office, behind a desk. Tommy Lasorda sat in a chair in front of the desk. Valentine rested his elbow on the desk and his chin in his left palm. Lasorda, having just come through a bout of vertigo, sagged in the chair.
The lineup card between them held the likes of Ryan Lavarnway in the cleanup spot, then James Loney behind him, and a bottom third of Ryan Kalish, Jose Iglesias and Pedro Ciriaco. Asked a question about the "hunger" of young players wishing to impress over the coming five weeks, Valentine grinned and, he couldn't help himself, pointed out that due to major-league salaries, meal money and lavish clubhouse spreads, "Big-league players are never 'hungry.' "
He smiled half-heartedly at his little joke.
"Guys who are here, even from spring training," he said, "seemed to want to play the game and play it as hard as they can."
This was not the charismatic Bobby V. This was a guy who knows he has a job for 33 games and a paycheck for 195, but the rest is unclear. The season came down around him almost since April then only got worse. His players seem divided on whether Valentine will be back next season. On one hand, the club appears to have backed him by trading away those who didn't appreciate his particular leadership qualities. On the other, well, there's not much getting around this complete disaster of a season, or the enormous amount of work it has created.
What's left is to show up and play it out, then see what happens. That began fresh again Tuesday night. Another city, another game, another lineup. At the end, there'll be nothing waiting but more decisions and, almost certainly, more drama. The Red Sox, they say, do not rebuild or "bridge" or however you want to describe it. Unless, of course, you count the last three seasons, which helped get them to here. They lost to the Angels, 6-5, Tuesday night when the reliever who was suspended for insubordination and flew commercial Boston to Orange County – "First class," Valentine pointed out – gave up two runs in the ninth, after also pitching the eighth.
"It's tough, but we didn't play up to our capabilities," outfielder Cody Ross said. "We didn't mesh this year."
The pressure to perform, Ross said, was greater than he felt last season, when he was in San Francisco and the Giants were playing to repeat their World Series championship. Ross had zero to do with the September meltdown in Boston, wasn't even in the same section of the country, and still he grinded like those who'd destroyed 2011 with their apathy.
"We had a lot to prove this year," he said.
The Angels know a little something about that. This was the season they were going to catch the Texas Rangers. That race didn't survive August. They are 10 games buried in that. They arrived Tuesday 4 ½ games out in the wild-card chase, and behind four teams. Two of them – the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A's – won Tuesday. All four – including the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays – have thoroughly outpitched the Angels, who signed C.J. Wilson last winter and added Zack Greinke at the deadline. Their ace, Jered Weaver, allowed five runs Tuesday (four earned) to that very lineup that lay on the desk between Valentine and Lasorda hours before.
And now, barely more than a month before the season is done, the Angels are left with this: If the Orioles and A's stumble along at .500 the rest of the way, and neither the Tigers nor Rays got overly hot, the Angels would have to win 22 of 33 games to catch and pass them. Over their last 33 games, they've won 15. So, a lot has to get better. And fast.
They have played themselves into this, even with Albert Pujols, even with the expectations, and even with Mike Trout being the best player on the field more often than not. The only solution is to play themselves out of it, and to hope like mad the A's and O's have some fade in them yet.
"That's obvious," Torii Hunter said late Tuesday, after his walk-off sacrifice fly beat the Red Sox. "It's almost September and it's getting close. … You never know. So, let's see what happens."
If nothing else, they're not the Red Sox. They're better than that. But they're not that far off, either.
Other popular content on Yahoo! Sports:
• Superdome manager feels 'eerie chill' as he braces for Hurricane Isaac on Katrina anniversary
• The 2012 All-Mancrush team: Undervalued darlings of Fantasy Football
• There's a new No. 1 in the Rivals150 hoops rankings | The list