ANAHEIM, Calif. – This would be the point in the season here, the points in their lives here, where they can stop being somewhat dissatisfied with it all and start being wholly grateful instead. They don’t think that way, probably, because next there’s a meeting to talk about Cole Hamels and after that batting practice and after that a fastball or something from Hamels himself, so there’s hardly any time to think about this not going so well or feeling fortunate for being just so-so enough to have another important game in a few hours. It won’t be limited to one important game, either, not after the 4 ½ months they just went through or survived or whatever it looked like from the outside.
Ballplayers in the thick of it — it’s not limited to just the Los Angeles Angels — tend to steer clear of stuff like regret or hopefulness and deal with, you know, whatever Hamels is gonna throw in a few hours. Whatever hits the barrel of their bat — or not — is the reality for now, which means the perspective of how many games over .500 and what the rest of the American League looks like and how fortunate they are for both is head space better left to important things. Like wristband colors.
By the rules of the clock and the calendar and the standings, the Angels are relevant. That’s something. The strategy probably wasn’t to be mediocre for so long that the American League lost its will and slinked back to them, but those are just details now. With six weeks out there, and on Monday opening a 10-game home stand, they’re playing for a game on Oct. 3, on national television, time TBA.
And how did this happen? The gloaming, that’s how.
Angel Stadium is infamous for its gloaming. Well, it should be. The ball goes up in the early innings, hides, an outfielder stands as though testing for rain drops, the ball reappears, and everybody pretends this is totally normal. So, too, did the Angels start their season, camouflage themselves against the night sky for a few months, then hurl themselves toward the light. In this (tortured) metaphor, the light would be, I guess, the Minnesota Twins and the rest of the presumptive AL wild carders.
In an ideal world, the Angels would not require the subterfuge. They’d have a regular closer to go with a regular eighth-inning guy. They’d have required fewer than a dozen starting pitchers, the most dependable of which — J.C. Ramirez, the converted reliever — just went to the disabled list with a troublesome elbow. They’d have had Mike Trout for the entire season. They’d have had a productive first baseman. Or second baseman. A farm system. Room under the tax threshold. Lots of stuff.
To their credit, the Angels won about as often as they lost for a very long time, discovered new and interesting ways to cover the ninth inning, won 13 of their first 18 games in August, and basically played their way to a place where anything can happen. And that’s good by Mike Trout.
He’s an engaging guy. Very upbeat. Likes the game at least as much as the game likes him. Does not seem to bother himself with thoughts outside the realm of his 25 against their 25, not when that’s all that’s in front of him. He says stuff like, “Great group of guys. That’s what it comes down to,” as though that’s what it comes down to, and then starts in on how great Parker Bridwell has been, how great Eric Young Jr. was when he came up, and flicks in, “And Simba’s playing unbelievable,” because Mike Trout does not obsess on the gloaming. He’d obsess on Hamels instead, but only until the next guy came in, and leave the whys and why nots to themselves.
“We’re just playing,” he said. “We’re not thinking about the standings. … We just believe in ourselves. The last few weeks it’s been fun.”
Like everyone else, the Angels are imperfect. From here, the challenge will be to be less imperfect than everyone else. To drag innings from their starters. To build a bullpen nightly. To win another one-run game. Then another. They’re good at that. They’re looking, in fact, a little like one of those bygone Mike Scioscia teams, not as talented, but winning games in those dark places where other teams lose them. On a defensive play. On an extra bag. On a matchup. On a ninth inning that teeters, teeters, teeters, and then falls their way. And, then, sometimes, because they have Mike Trout and nobody else does.
It won’t always work. But that’s the beauty — such as it is — of the race for the second places in the American League. It won’t have to. It’ll only have to stay out of the gloaming.
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