ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Los Angeles Angels had lost their fifth game in a row and their seventh in eight games. They hadn't scored more than three runs in a game since Memorial Day and three times had scored once or been shut out.
It was late Wednesday night, so late the security guard impatiently eyed the last reporter in the Angels' clubhouse. He wished to lock up and go home. Nothing more to see here. Move along, pally.
Clubbies padded across the carpet, carrying spikes that hadn't made it out of the batter's box, hauling jerseys that had hardly won for a week, that finished third in the American League West last year and are in third place again with summer a little more than a week off.
It hates you back, he's told, and he grinned, because he loves the game so much he can't bring himself to leave, not like this, not with another game un-won.
"Cruel sometimes," Vernon Wells(notes) agreed, and he seemed caught between collapsing in front of his locker and showering the whole thing away, and until he committed he wandered back and forth, burning off what was left of the night.
Their manager had flushed and railed against another dozen or so dreadful at-bats, those coming in spite of a meeting in which he pleaded for patience and precision, and in spite of a reconfigured lineup that is the manager's despairing lunge.
"We need to get our house in order," Mike Scioscia had snipped.
Following a pretty decent decade of October attendance and honest at-bats and first-pitch strikes and basepath anarchy, of bad-ass baseball, of being the most uncomfortable play in the league, the Angels have become an average team searching for its edge. In a 25-man game, an organizational game, they continue to mourn the infirmary of Kendrys Morales(notes).
Since Morales walked off the Seattle Mariners with a grand slam and crash-landed 175 games ago, the Angels are 86-89. Off their first losing season in seven years, they've fallen four games under .500 again, 5½ games behind the Texas Rangers, 2½ games behind the Seattle Mariners, and out of the American League's elite.
Because they do pitch, the Angels can be capable some nights, but more often aren't, because they get barely the league average or worse from seven of the nine places in their batting order, and because Scioscia's swat at generating offense sometimes includes Alberto Callaspo(notes), who ranks 113th in baseball in slugging, in the three and four spots, or Wells, who slashes at .176/.220/.291, in the five hole, though one can hardly blame Scioscia for what has become a daily reach for something productive.
The team that used to bully its foes into its spirited game has neither the gift nor the gall for that game anymore, not when the offensive side of its roster tends toward old or young or helpless. Seemingly positioned – with their philosophy, system and attitude – to take advantage of a sport being weaned off steroids, the Angels look more like one of its victims. They'd for so long been about more than their numbers, and now they are exactly their numbers – bottom half-ers in strikeouts (they lead the AL), power, on-base percentage, batting, batting with runners in scoring position (.226) and nearly anything that results in a run actually being plated.
On a given night, Howie Kendrick(notes), Erick Aybar(notes), Maicer Izturis(notes) and, perhaps, Callaspo are the only players one would consider both somewhat productive and in their primes, and in many organizations two or three of them would be considered nice complimentary players, but not offense drivers.
That leaves the offense to the likes of Bobby Abreu(notes), who still has the best at-bats in the lineup, Mark Trumbo(notes), the rookie who leads the team in home runs, Hunter and Wells. That's not the rogue, swashbuckling offense that ran games the last decade, but a watered-down, institutionalized version of it. Abreu is 37, Hunter is coming up on 36, Wells is 32 going on 42. Those, in Scioscia's best handwriting, are the three, four and five hitters.
Scioscia claimed that even conservative projections would suggest more, attempting perhaps to relieve general manager Tony Reagins of his culpability in this, and owner Arte Moreno of his. It's on the players, Scioscia said. They can produce. They can run their at-bats. They can make contact.
"And we're not shooting rainbows everywhere," Scioscia said.
The Angels had been swept by the Tampa Bay Rays, who can dictate a game the way the Angels once did. They'd lost two of three to the New York Yankees before that, and the Kansas City Royals before that.
Wells, who bears the contract of a man who should shoulder an offense but instead bats seventh for now, spent nearly a month on the disabled list, was rushed through two minor league rehab games and has struck out three times in six at-bats since. He literally staggers through plate appearances, lacking anything like balance or confidence.
When he struck out with a man at third and two out in the eighth inning Wednesday, on a chin-high fastball he had no chance at, Wells raised his bat over his head like a housewife aiming a broom at a mouse. Gathering himself, he flung the bat away and stalked into left field.
"You go through periods in this game," he said much later in an empty clubhouse, "where you work and you work and you work, and at some point you work through it. It's frustrating, especially on top of us struggling to score runs.
"Young guys, old guys, everything seems to be magnified in our own eyes. It's almost something that's being thought about and talked about too much."
It's on him as much as anybody, maybe more than anybody. The young Angels are surviving, finding their ways. The old Angels aren't necessarily who they were, not every night, not anymore.
Carl Crawford(notes) and Adrian Beltre(notes) are not here. Kendrys Morales is not here. That leaves Wells, the previously inescapable contract, and a long way back. That leaves what Scioscia calls "on-field chemistry," and what everyone else calls getting on base and driving them home. That leaves the Angels with a lot of quiet games, a grinding mediocrity, and little with which to patch it up.
"I know that's the case," Wells said. "That's what I work for every day, to get back to where I need to be. I feel like I'm definitely one of those guys where, as I go the team goes."
For the moment, the team was going home.
It was going on midnight.
The security guard was practically jangling his keys.
"See ya," Wells said. "Hopefully we can have some conversations that are a little more fun."
It'd be nice to love the game again.
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- Mike Scioscia