Richard Justice

Angels need winning mojo to match talent

Justice: Angels need winning mojo to match talent

Angels need winning mojo to match talent
On the first day of August, the Angels had just battered the Rangers in back-to-back games by the combined score of 21-10. If they weren't baseball's best team, they were really close, going 49-32 over a three-month stretch.

The Halos had erased the frustration and doubt of an 8-15 April and cut their deficit in the American League West from nine games to three. They had also strengthened themselves for the stretch run by acquiring right-hander Zack Greinke, the best starting pitcher to change teams this summer.

This, finally, was the team virtually everyone thought was bound for glory. Albert Pujols and Mike Trout. Jered Weaver and Greinke. If you had polled baseball people on the morning of Aug. 1, they probably would voted the Angels as the team to beat in the AL, if not all of baseball.

And then a strange thing happened on the way to the ring ceremony. On Aug. 1, the Angels were ripping the Rangers again, leading 7-1 in the middle of the fifth inning. When this day was done, Texas' lead would be down to two games, and the torch was about to be passed.

Only the Rangers didn't go quietly. They knocked out Garrett Richards with a four-run fifth, and then with one out in the bottom of the ninth, Ian Kinsler tied it with a home run. An inning later, after the Halos took the lead with three runs, Texas rallied for four in its half of the 10th to win it 11-10.

Afterward, the Angels called it a tough loss, but they didn't see it as more than that. They had been arguably baseball's best team for three months. Stuff happens, even to great teams.

What the Halos couldn't have known, what they would have refused to believe, is that their season would take a dramatic turn that night. They suddenly would pay for the poor starting pitching they'd been getting. Their thin bullpen would be exposed. And when they most needed a big hit, it would not be there.

Now the Angels are in free fall, their season in danger of slipping away. They're 3-9 this month after a 6-2 loss to the Indians on Monday. Starting pitchers not named Weaver are 0-3 with a 6.39 ERA this month. The bullpen that had a 3.16 ERA before the All-Star break has a 6.11 ERA since.

The Twins and Yankees are the only AL teams to score more runs than the Angels since the break. But against the Indians, the Halos were 0-for-9 with six strikeouts with runners in scoring position.

At 60-56, they're again eight games behind the Rangers in the AL West and two games behind the second-place A's. They're just 2 1/2 games out in the AL Wild Card race, but have three teams to pass.

And to a team struggling to win a single game, it feels like a lot more than 2 1/2 games. That's why manager Mike Scioscia called a team meeting on Sunday to remind his guys that everything they had worked for and dreamed of is still within reach. Nothing has been lost.

Scioscia's bullpen has been getting hit hard, with Scott Downs and Jordan Walden on the disabled list. But the problems begin with a rotation that hasn't gotten an out in the seventh inning in 25 of 41 starts.

To put an extra burden on a bullpen that is without two key pieces is to invite trouble. When this season began, it was that starting rotation that seemed possibly the best in the game.

The Angels had no way of knowing that Dan Haren would win just eight of his first 21 starts and that his ERA (4.68) would be more than a run per game higher than his career mark (3.66).

Nor could they have imagined that C.J. Wilson would be riding a nine-game winless stretch, that even his good starts would get the Halos nothing. Greinke is winless in his three starts and has been hit hard in his last two.

Scioscia has been through so many of these wars that he knows the only solution is to keep going. Even good teams go through these tough times virtually every season. They become a test of confidence and a whole bunch of other things.

There's nothing profound to it. Players have to keep showing up, grinding out at-bats and executing pitches. Greinke, Wilson and Haren have a long track record of pitching well, and in the end, they're probably going to be the ones who decide how this season plays out for the Angels.

Last year's champions, the Cardinals, lost seven in a row at one point and lost 10 of 15 around this time. In 2010, the Giants also had a seven-game losing streak in late June and were one game over .500 as late as July 2.

There were no magical speeches or team meetings with those teams, either. When Cards manager Tony La Russa began plotting a comeback a year ago, his first goal was to finish in front of the hated Reds. He appealed to his team to play hard all the way, and see where it got them.

The Angels have so much talent that it's almost inconceivable they wouldn't make the playoffs. But it might be difficult to convince them of that today.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.