An oversize season schedule is attached to one wall of the Angels’ clubhouse, and it marks more than the passage of time.
A baseball occupies the square on the day of each Angels victory, and there aren’t as many gaps between those baseballs as you’d think there would have been during the month since reigning American League MVP Mike Trout tore a ligament in his left thumb and underwent surgery.
Most recently, two balls were affixed to the calendar for their three-game series at New York against the Yankees, two for winning their three-game series at Boston, one for their triumph in the Freeway Series opener at Dodger Stadium, and another for their wild comeback Wednesday at Angel Stadium. They didn’t expand their collection Thursday because of a 12-strikeout performance by Clayton Kershaw and a home-run barrage that powered the Dodgers to a 6-2 victory and a split of the Freeway Series, but they remained one game out of the second AL wild-card spot — and they can take encouragement from knowing Trout is scheduled to take full batting practice Friday as he inches closer to returning.
The Angels could have collapsed without Trout and no one would have been surprised. He’s their heart, their engine, their leader in every way. Throw in the fact that they have seven pitchers on the disabled list, and their season seemed doomed.
Instead, the Angels have scraped and clawed, relying on a surprisingly effective bullpen and solid defense to stay competitive. They’re 14-13 in June with one game left and 42-41 overall. Since a six-game losing streak in early April their longest los- ing streak is three, and they haven’t lost that many in a row since Trout was hurt.
Their goal was to not drop out of contention for a wild-card spot while Trout recovered. They’ve accomplished that and have learned something about themselves too.
“Not having Mike, the best player in the world in my opinion, it was an important time for us to find our identity,” center fielder Cameron Maybin said, “and our identity is we’re together.”
Maybin scored the Angels’ first run Thursday in a very Angel-like way: He singled, took second on a fielding error, moved to third on a grounder and scored on Albert Pujols’ fielder’s-choice grounder. He said those who predicted the Angels would fade after Trout exited the lineup didn’t account for the extent that adversity has strengthened players’ bonds.
“This is a very selfish game that we play, and I’ve been on a lot of teams that guys aren’t always playing for each other,” said Maybin, who leads the AL with 24 stolen bases, almost one-third of the Angels’ major league-leading 74 steals. “And the amount of character that this clubhouse con- tinues to exude, and just seeing guys just genuinely want to see the next guy succeed and be successful, I think that’s why we’ve been able to, like I say, shock the world. ...
“Character in a clubhouse is very important. It’s huge. And I think this is the reason why we’ve been able to weather the storm. It hasn’t always been great, but we haven’t been on a lot of bad skids. We’ve been able to keep our head above water, so to speak, and con- tinue to play good baseball.”
Reliever Huston Street, who’s working his way back into the bullpen mix, also praised the Angels’ resilience within games and during their time without Trout.
“This team has done a fantastic job,” Street said. “You pretty much can put this season in one context: Mike Trout’s injury. And you saw the way guys reacted.”
But there’s a lot of season left, as Street noted. “And, I think, you don’t want to get too excited about a nine-game stretch where you play well,” he said. “But I think it’s a testament to this team, which is young in time in the big leagues, maybe not age. We’ve got some up-and-coming guys who are really starting to show themselves.”
The Angels have shown they can be competitive. Trout’s return should allow them to put a lot more baseballs into those remaining calendar squares.
“I always call Trouty the humble superstar,” Street said. “He’s the perfect superstar. Trouty just fits in. I think he’ll just come back and be a huge stoke to the fire. I don’t think people will relax.”