Is this season a brilliant disguise? Or can the Angels start to prove it all night, no surrender, and show that better days -- perhaps even the Promised Land -- lie ahead?
At trying times such as these, Mike Scioscia and Jerry Dipoto surely would agree that a heavy dose of Bruce Springsteen can't hurt.
Scioscia, the manager, and Dipoto, the general manager, grew up in Springsteen country as serious fans of the king of Jersey rock. They know that it's time for the Angels to roll up their sleeves, Bruce style, and go to work, starting with the Mariners on Friday night, opening a three-game series and 10-game Angel Stadium homestand.
A 4-6 journey through North Texas, Chicago and Oakland dimmed the strong vibes that had been building. Particularly harmful were back-to-back losses to the Rangers in triple-digit heat, rocking the Angels at a time when they were sensing the opportunity to seize control of the American League West.
They went on to drop two of three against the White Sox, undone by physical and mental errors, and two of three against the A's, who suddenly turned into Murderers' Row. Two impressive wins in Texas followed by six losses in eight games.
It is baffling the best of minds. Persuasive arguments can be made that the Angels employ baseball's best player (Mike Trout), best pitcher (Jered Weaver), most feared hitter (Albert Pujols), strongest slugger (Mark Trumbo), best leader (Torii Hunter) and most respected manager (Scioscia) among his peers.
With this stockpile of weapons and assets, why in the world, fans wonder, are they chasing not only the two-time defending AL champion Rangers, but also the A's, who were projected to lose many more games than they'd win?
Consistency is the Angels' big issue. There have been dominant stretches accompanied by slumps and underachievement.
While they still own the league's best record (53-39) since the April 28 arrival of Trout, they've been spinning their wheels since the Rangers stalled all their momentum on Aug. 1, coming back twice late for an 11-10 victory followed by a 15-9 thumping to earn a series split.
"Right now, we're underachieving in the same areas we were early in the season," Scioscia said. "These guys are ready to play every day. They feel confident in winning every day. It's that confidence that will get you through some periods like we're in right now.
"Sometimes we've played tremendous baseball, and others we've taken some steps back. After the break, we've hit a little bump in the road."
A major roster makeover featuring Pujols, C.J. Wilson and now Zack Greinke, is a "work in progress," in Scioscia's words. Struggles in the rotation -- except for the saving grace of Weaver and his 15-1 record -- have stressed a thin bullpen that has been trying to hold it together with Scott Downs and Jordan Walden sidelined.
In this game, familiarity breeds comfort as well as, on occasion, contempt. The Rangers' biggest advantage over the Angels -- and the A's -- is that their nucleus is rock solid with a high trust factor.
Chris Iannetta, the Angels' new catcher, calls Hunter "the epitome of a leader." The right fielder has been the unifying presence in the clubhouse since his arrival in 2008, bringing from Minnesota lessons learned at the feet of Kirby Puckett, his mentor.
"You look at Texas, those guys have been together for four years or more," Hunter said. "They know how to compete together, what they need to do.
"We've got a lot of new faces in the clubhouse. On the field and on the pitching staff, we've got new guys -- great players -- in big roles. It takes time for those new faces to get comfortable. You want to do everything you can to make them comfortable, but you need to get to know them, on and off the field.
"It doesn't happen overnight with so many new faces. It took us six to eight weeks to get there. Over the last two or three months, that's when I started realizing who you can joke around with and who you can't; when you need to have fun and when you need to be serious.
"That's getting to know your teammates -- not just me, but all the guys in here. It's coming together. And it's going to keep getting better."
Hunter is talking about chemistry. On the field it has immediate visibility -- how position players function on double plays, relays, bunts, putting runners in motion, rundowns. Breakdowns in these subtle fundamental phases of the game can unhinge a club by heaping stress on the pitching staff.
Internal chemistry -- what goes on behind closed clubhouse doors -- is neither visible nor definable by outsiders. Only those on the inside know how they get along and how that is impacting their play.
"Team chemistry is one of the most overlooked and important things involved in winning," Iannetta said. "It takes time. Not to say we have bad chemistry -- that's not true. I think it started from Day 1 in Spring Training. I don't think it was ever an issue, but over time, it certainly gets better.
"It's like relationships off the field. The more you're around people, the more comfortable you are. If this team's together five years, it will be better than it is now."
Pujols wasn't much fun to be around in April, when he had people wondering if he'd left his heart -- and game-changing talent -- in St. Louis. He's back to feeling like a king. It shows in his regal manner as well as in the familiar noise his bat is making.
"Pujols came from a different league," Hunter said. "It was tough enough for me making the change, and I didn't have to change leagues. He had to learn new pitchers, new parks -- backdrops, angles, grass, everything. It's all new to him.
"That's why it took him a while. He struggled for a while, but we knew it wouldn't stop him."
Trout's two stints with the club last year gave him a comfort zone when he joined the club after getting past an illness that reduced his spring to about a week of pinch-hitting.
"Last year we could see he had a great personality," Hunter said. "Everybody liked Trout. He's confident, but it's not a cockiness. He has fun, and at the same time, he's humble. He wants to learn. To be doing what he's doing at his age ... I love the kid. Not for what he does, but for who he is.
"If you want to build a team, I'll build it around him."
Trout is another of those guys from Springsteen country. He was born to run -- and show he's tougher than the rest.
He was a terrific high school pitcher back home in Millville, N.J., but Trout can't help there now. The Angels need their well-heeled arms to deliver to make these final weeks and months memorable.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less