Early down payments

The Angels open the 2013 season Monday against the Cincinnati Reds in Great American Ball Park, the starting line for a grueling six-month, 162-game marathon that requires skill, depth, endurance, patience and perspective, among other things.

So when Mike Trout calls it “the most important game of the year,” it would be easy to pass off as hyperbole from an exuberant 21-year-old bundle of fast-twitch muscles and energy on the verge of his first big league opening day.

Then again, he could be onto something.

“It’s not a good feeling to be scoreboard-watching in August and September, trying to fight back,” said Trout, the 2012 American League rookie of the year and most valuable player runner-up.

“All the games are very important. It may not look like that at the beginning of the season, but the ones in April are just as important as those at the end.”

That wasn’t the Angels’ mantra last April and May, when they were torpedoed by an 18-25 start. The common refrain then, especially among the grizzled of veterans, was, “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”


They learned a hard and valuable lesson they’ll carry -- along with World Series expectations -- into 2013: Sometimes it is how you start.

“What I take from last year is you have to treat every game like it’s your last,” designated hitter Mark Trumbo said. “You can’t take anything for granted. You don’t want to put yourself back on your heels so early.”

Some people predicted the Angels, with the 10-year, $240-million acquisition of Albert Pujols and a star-studded rotation led by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, would reach the World Series in 2012.

After losing two of three in a season-opening series against Kansas City, “We realized this thing wasn’t going to win itself,” Trumbo said. The season unraveled from there, with Pujols’ brutal start -- he was batting .194 with no home runs and five runs batted in May 4 -- putting a major drag on the club.

The Angels recovered, and from mid-May on they were one of the best teams in baseball. But they couldn’t catch Texas or Oakland in August and September, and their 89-73 finish left them out of the playoffs for the third straight year.

Their top priority for 2013 is a good start, one in which the bulk of their lineup hits, their starters pitch relatively deep into games, and their relievers settle into defined roles.

“We don’t have to be on fire,” second baseman Howie Kendrick said, “but we want to get out of the gate better than we did last year.”

Managing the expectations could be key.

“I don’t know if there are any positives to notoriety and expectations,” Trumbo said. “The guys on the team are the ones who have to go out and battle and get it done. We need to follow our own expectations, not those of the fans and media.”

Did the expectations weigh so heavily on the Angels that they affected their play last April and May?

“I think they could have,” center fielder Peter Bourjos said. “It was a combination of everything. Albert was trying to settle in, there were a lot of lineups, a lot of stuff that as a team we were trying to figure out -- who was playing where, getting guys at-bats -- and I don’t think we got into a good rhythm.”

Manager Mike Scioscia spent last April rotating five players -- Trumbo, Bourjos, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales, Bobby Abreu -- through two outfield spots and at designated hitter. Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis shared the leadoff spot and combined to hit .231 in April.

Not until Abreu was released April 27 and Trout was called up from triple A and inserted into the leadoff spot did the Angels gain stability and continuity. Star outfielder Josh Hamilton signed this off-season, but General Manager Jerry Dipoto removed any temptation for Scioscia to tinker too much with the lineup.

Hunter was allowed to walk as a free agent, Morales was traded to Seattle, and Wells was sent to the New York Yankees last week, leaving four players -- Trout, Hamilton, Bourjos and Trumbo -- for four spots.

“It’s always easier when things are settled and you know what your core lineup is going to be,” Scioscia said. “Hopefully we’ll have more firm footing on offense to start the season, and it will better affect how we get out of the gate.”

Then there’s the Trout effect. How could the young phenom, who spent the first four weeks of 2012 at Salt Lake, not be a difference maker in April after hitting .326 with 30 home runs, 83 runs batted in, 129 runs and 49 stolen bases in five months last season?

“Anyone who puts up the kind of numbers he does at the top of the lineup,” Trumbo said, “is going to provide a nice spark plug.”