September 16, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
The Angels' Last Hope
There's one particular kind of vision with which we're all well acquainted, regardless of whether it has yet infiltrated our darkest nightmares—the vision where there's something laid out just before us that we desperately want, but the harder we pursue it and the further we reach out towards it, the more distant it becomes. Ideally, said vision is accompanied by some form of horror trance music, heavily distorted surroundings, and enormous projection screens depicting a larger-than-life De La Soul mockingly, uproariously laughing at our plight. Said vision would likely also have been preceded by the consumption of a generous quantity of high-quality alcohol, but since tales of that sort are best left to folks like my good friend Jason Parks, I'm going to swing this back around into an actual baseball point.
We all know of this vision, but not all of us have had the misfortune of dealing with such an experience in real life. The 2011 Angels aren't so lucky. It's not that they were widely regarded as favorites within their division before the outset of the season (note: they weren't), or even that they currently seem destined to fall short of their ultimate goal (as reflected in their post-season odds, which are now in great danger of slipping beneath the 1-in-20 mark). Well, it is partly about the second one, but one of the more frustrating realities from the Angels' perspective has been their recurring failure over the last four months to make it back over the first-place hump. Each time they've surged back within a stone's throw of Texas, they've fallen behind yet again. And even though the Angels have hung tough with their first-place adversaries throughout that four-month period, they have now all but run out of the one commodity that they need most: time.
Of course, there is a glass-half-full way of looking at this. Case in point: The Angels have been in first place at the end of only 24 of their game days this season, compared to 138 first-place game days for the Rangers. I pointed out this lopsided ratio a couple of weeks back—but if you dig around a little below the surface, you discover something mildly startling about the Angels' resiliency. Since May 15 (or the last date at which Los Angeles held an outright share of first place), the Angels have played a grand total of 108 games. At the end of 92 of those game days, the Angels found themselves within at least four games of first place. At the end of 50 of those games, the Angels found themselves within at least two games of first place. Fifty! And since May 15, the Rangers have pulled away and built up a lead of at least five games on three separate occasions, only for the Angels to rally back each time and trim the Rangers' lead to a maximum of 1 ½ games.
Considering what the lot out in Orange County has been forced to overcome this season (the defection of Mike Napoli to Texas as part of that horrific Vernon Wells trade chain, the absence of Kendrys Morales, the subpar outfield/DH production and the complete offensive black hole at catcher, the supreme iffyness at the back end of the rotation, and the fact that the Angels simply don't have as much talent on hand as the Rangers), this actually has been a commendable run by Los Angeles. It still would not surprise me to see this division race come squealing down to the final Rangers/Angels three-game set of the regular season. That would constitute a much closer finish than many believed likely some six months ago. Maybe this isn't so much nightmare fuel for the Angels, after all.
But now time is of the essence, and the reality is that the shot clock is rapidly winding down on the Angels. As of Thursday morning, they had 13 games left to make up three games of ground and force a one-game playoff—a task which proved impossible during a three-week stretch from mid-August to early-September where the weighted-average strength of the Rangers' opponents was on par with that of a 90-win team, compared to 78-win weighted-average strength of the Angels' opponents. Despite their desperate rush to make up a large swath of ground during this golden window of opportunity (including the decision to toss both Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver at the Rangers on three days' rest, with mixed results), the Angels succeeded only in paring the Rangers' divisional lead from 4 to 2½ games during this stretch.
Los Angeles now has to make up double that amount of ground in less time without the benefit of such massive short-term scheduling inequities, as the Angels draw the Orioles (away), Blue Jays (away), and Athletics (home) before playing host to the Rangers to close out the regular season. Texas, on the other hand, draws nine straight against two .450-or-worse teams in the Mariners (away, home) and the Athletics (away).
And as if the unfavorable scheduling situation and expiring window to make a legitimate move in the standings weren't problematic enough on their own, there are a couple of more significant issues in play: (a) as Christina Kahrl notes, the Angels' starting rotation is set up so that Weaver (who will go on short rest on Sunday), Santana, and Dan Haren will start only nine of the Angels' remaining 13 games, leaving Los Angeles to rely upon the shaky duo of Jerome Williams and Joel Pineiro during the first two games of a treacherous four-game set in Toronto, and (b) unless the Angels can ensure that they're only three down with three to play, their fate will be wholly ripped from their grasp. C.J. Wilson and Derek Holland have quietly evolved into a potent one-two southpaw punch atop the Texas rotation, and the Rangers' scorching offense was hitting .329/.388/.580 for the month of September entering Thursday's slate of games. If the Rangers don't lose, the Angels can't win.
There's an interesting discussion to be had about what Tony Reagins can do over the winter to bring his roster's talent level into congruence (or better) with that of the Rangers, and, in the near future, an even more interesting discussion on the Rangers' chances of making deep inroads in a playoff setup that seems particularly unforgiving to the defending American League champions. In the present, though, it's about Texas staving off one last furious charge—and for Los Angeles, it's about trying not to make 2011 memorable for being the season of wasted opportunity.