For the first time in six years, September games are going to mean something for the Angels.
But they were hoping they wouldn’t mean this much.
Angel fans, paranoid by nature, were daring to talk about magic numbers 10 days ago. Now, they’re counting up the almost-tragic numbers, such as nine losses in the last 12 games and a total of four runs in three days.
The Angels returned to Anaheim Stadium Aug. 17 with a 10 1/2-game lead over Texas in the American League West, seemingly in a position to run away from any pressure of a race for the division title. But after losing to Baltimore, 4-0, in front of a paid crowd of 26,732 Sunday, the Angels will hit the road for an all-too-meaningful trip through New York, Boston and Baltimore. And the Angels are 13-17 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.
Angel Manager Marcel Lachemann kept the clubhouse doors closed for a few extra minutes Sunday while he lectured on concentration and resolve. “It was the most ticked off I’ve ever seen him,” one player said. Lachemann emerged to give his team a resounding vote of confidence, laying his job on the line in the process.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we’re going to win this [division],” he said. “And if we don’t win this thing, then they should get rid of the manager, because this a good team.”
General Manager Bill Bavasi later expressed similar sentiments. “On Halloween night, we’ll either be celebrating something we accomplished, or I’ll be recovering from a botched suicide attempt,” he said. “We’re a good club and we’re playing bad. If we play bad for too long, we won’t win. But I don’t think that will happen.”
The Angels will have a better idea after the upcoming nine-game trip, a “challenge” that Lachemann says he is looking forward to.
“We were at a level of not having much expectation and we did a lot to change that,” he said. “Now, we have higher expectations, and it’s time to see if we can handle it.”
Sunday, the Angels failed to handle Oriole starter Mike Mussina, who threw a complete-game four-hitter to become the first pitcher in the majors to win 15 games. He’s 10-2 in his last 14 starts.
“It was just one of the games where I had pretty good stuff,” he said, shrugging.
So how good is his stuff these days? The Orioles have scored nine runs in his last six starts, and he’s managed to win three of them, thanks to an earned-run average of 1.42 over that span.
“He’s one of the better pitchers in the league anyway, and he was just outstanding today,” Tony Phillips said. “Really outstanding.”
Mussina, who had a season-high 11 strikeouts, walked two and gave up two doubles and two singles, but never more than one hit in an inning. He was the picture of efficiency, in direct contrast to the Baltimore offense.
The Orioles continued to make the least with the most. In the last two days, Baltimore has scored nine runs on 29 hits, stranding 27 runners. Of the nine runs, four have scored on home runs.
Rafael Palmeiro, who extended his hitting streak to six games with his fifth homer in his last 22 at-bats, put Baltimore ahead, 1-0, in the first inning with a two-out shot into the right-field seats. Mark Smith doubled and scored on Greg Zaun’s single in the second, and Cal Ripken Jr. grounded a run-scoring single to center in the third.
But it was Baltimore’s fourth run that irked Lachemann. Brady Anderson hit a deep fly ball to left-center and center fielder Jim Edmonds sprinted over, calling for the ball. Left fielder Garret Anderson did not veer off course, however, and the ball fell untouched for a triple when Edmonds avoided the collision. Anderson then scored on a wild pitch.
“There’s been some things defensively lately, mainly a lack of concentration, I think, that we need to address,” Lachemann said. “There were some games during this home stand that we could have won if we had executed fundamentally the way we had been all year.”
There was a time earlier this season when a few minor defensive transgressions went unnoticed amid a barrage of baseballs bounding off walls and seats. But the Angels, who have scored in double digits 19 times this season and lead the majors in runs scored, are averaging only 3.3 runs a game during the last week.
“We’ll have to play a hell of a lot better on this trip than we have been,” Phillips said. “Every team goes through these periods, but one thing I learned with the A’s was that if you keep battling, the worm will turn.”
Texas’ loss to Kansas City allowed the Angels to maintain a 7 1/2-game lead, but even Lachemann admits that the “anxiety level” is on the rise.
“I can’t say I’m not happy Texas hasn’t won more games,” he said, “but sooner or later, we’re going to have to start winning again.”