ANAHEIM, Calif. – The monkey around here had performed so many unrequited dances they'd had to hop him up on spiked banana mush and Adam Kennedy highlight reels just to get him to his feet most nights.
It was interminably sad, him curled on the floor clutching a deflated thunderstick in one furry arm and an autographed Bill Stoneman headshot in the other, muttering something about suicide squeezes gone haywire in Boston.
But he'd dutifully answered the call, night after night, deficit after deficit, 14 years running, the good old days little more than a tick on his mottled scalp.
So, it is with some confidence – and in deference to an old primate's false hopes – that we report the Angels are beginning to look a little like his Angels again. Through 64 games, that ending on Collin Cowgill's 14th-inning home run Tuesday night, they had posted their best record – 36-28 – since 2008. The Angels would return to the playoffs and the American League championship series in 2009, but by the following season their personal attachment to AL West titles – five in six years – would be over, and so would their tradition of edgy postseasons, and a seemingly tired franchise would give way to the Texas Rangers and then the Oakland A's.
Having groped for four years for something that would work again, and in that time apparently having settled for filling their payroll while emptying their farm system, the Angels are pitching at the front end with some authority (only A's starters have a better ERA) and playing tidy defense and hope to be discovering arms for their bullpen. They score runs with almost anyone. Except, of course, the A's, who do practically everything better than everyone else.
The bullpen remains something of a challenge, and if the Angels can't stay with the A's (or, for that matter, the Mariners) through the summer, it is the bullpen that is likely to be responsible.
Meanwhile, after being ravaged in Oakland a week before – they were swept in three games and outscored 26-11 – the Angels had composed themselves and as of Wednesday afternoon had won five games in a row and six of their previous seven. That briefly sunny stretch included two wins over the A's; Monday night when Garrett Richards' do-over (he hadn't gotten out of the first inning in Oakland) had him allow one run over seven innings and Tuesday night when Hector Santiago returned from the minor leagues and went six scoreless. In the latter, six Angels relievers – Kevin Jepsen, Mike Morin, Joe Smith, Cam Bedrosian, Fernando Salas and Cory Rasmus – allowed a run over eight innings.
In many ways, they'd won two games the way the A's win games, the way the Angels used to win games, by throwing strikes and making plays. By Wednesday night, the A's were the A's again, pitching and measuring Jered Weaver for most of six innings until they could put a bat barrel on something. They knocked him out with three runs, two on Stephen Vogt's long home run. They pitched better with Tommy Milone.
Over three days, the Angels had needed to play better against the A's. They'd needed to inch a more promising season a bit closer to summer, to survive another day of Albert Pujols' slump (he's batted .185 with a .237 on-base percentage since May 6, and batted .147 with runners in scoring position since opening day), to perhaps reassure themselves they could stand on the same field with the best in the league.
They wouldn't see the A's again until late August, and these were the games before them anyway, and every day they could pitch and defend would be better than the alternative. The alternative being the few years leading to this one.
"Those two things are essential if you want to reach your goals," manager Mike Scioscia said Wednesday afternoon, before the Angels had trouble with both in a 7-1 loss. "We're much closer to that type of team than we have been the last couple years.
"I know I'm very excited to see how this team keeps improving and evolving. And I don't think there's anyone in that room who doesn't think we can compete for a championship and that's what we're going to do."
Nothing else, another end-to-end season from Mike Trout, the continued rebirth of Josh Hamilton (.381 in 17 games and .349 in 42 games since last Sept. 1), promise from Richards and Tyler Skaggs, consistent starts from C.J. Wilson, some reliability in the back end of the bullpen (Ernesto Frieri and Smith), and reasonable roster depth has quelled the conversation about how Arte Moreno feels about his baseball leadership. It's just baseball again, and two well-played games out of three against the A's in June, and a growing sense they could be pretty good, if not yet exactly what they once were. Not yet.
"We've played good baseball," Weaver said late Wednesday.
It's true. Better, anyway. And in a long season that's got plenty left in it, it's done the heart and mind of an old monkey some good. He's relevant again. They all are.
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