Angels’ playoff push hits a snag in 4-3 loss to Mariners

They are a tailgate missing the beer, a home lacking a couch, a car short on gas.

The Angels have the offense, have the defense, even have the bullpen to finish this run they’ve set out on toward the playoffs. Their deficiency remains within their starting rotation.

In September, manager Mike Scioscia can attempt to mask it more than anyone thought possible. He can pull his starters early and turn to reliever after reliever for minute stints, breaking records in the process. But he cannot completely cover over his club’s shortcomings.

In the Angels’ 4-3 loss to Seattle on Friday at Safeco Field, they were again conspicuous in the form of Ricky Nolasco, who could not finish four innings. The 34-year-old right-hander has taken the ball for 29 games this season.


Nineteen times, the Angels have lost.

“Ninety-one pitches for three-plus innings is a lot of work,” Scioscia said. “He started off strong, but just had trouble getting to a certain point in the game.”

Scioscia often cites a certain point in games, but is always unwilling to delineate exactly where that point lies. Eleven outs, though, is clearly not it.

Nolasco took the mound buoyed by a 2-0 lead, but his command immediately appeared faulty. He missed his target with two key pitches in the second inning but surrendered only a single and a popup.

Baseball being baseball, he suffered most not because of a mistake but as a result of a good pitch.

After a Mike Zunino single, he cornered Ben Gamel in a 1-and-2 count and fired a splitter at the bottom of the strike zone. The pitch could have been a little lower. But had Gamel swung and missed, it would not have been a surprise. Instead, he reached out and sent it for a three-run home run to right field.

Nolasco again found peril in the the third, hurt by a bad-luck bounce on a Robinson Cano grounder down the first-base line. What would have been a groundout instead became a double. Then, with the bases loaded, Haniger punched a run-scoring single into right.

“The difference in the game,” Nolasco said, “is the ball hits the base.”

Scioscia pulled Nolasco after a two-out double in the fourth, territory he’d normally ask his starter to survive. But 14 men are sitting in the Angels’ bullpen each game this month, so Scioscia feels freer to start calling them to the mound. He needed only four Friday. Those four men supplied 13 outs of scoreless relief, with eight strikeouts against no walks. But it was not enough.

As the Angels began against recently acquired Mariners starter Mike Leake, Brandon Phillips shot a leadoff single up the middle. Mike Trout slapped a double down the left-field line. Justin Upton grounded another single to right to score both teammates.

Leake altered his pitch mix in the second inning, establishing that he willing to throw his slider early in a count when seeking a called strike. He then played his sinker off of that and thus retired the next 11 Angels in order, earning grounder after grounder.

“He started us off slow,” Mike Trout said. “The sinker was good tonight and we couldn’t pick up just one pitch.”

C.J. Cron’s two-out single into center in the fifth ended that streak. In the sixth, Phillips sent a near-homer to left field in the sixth, but Gamel leapt to steal it. After Trout flied out, Upton notched another single, then took second on a passed ball. He ran home when Pujols singled into left.

As Mariners manager Scott Servais used five relievers in the three remaining innings, the Angels managed only two singles, one by Phillips and one by Pujols. Pujols’ nearly went as a home run, banging off the left-field wall. Only his lack of speed kept it a single.

Because of their loss and the Minnesota Twins’ victory, the Angels (72-69) fell two games out of the American League wild-card hunt. It’s not only those two teams giving chase, as Texas and Baltimore are within one game of the Angels, and the Mariners now within two.

Short hops

The Angels called up outfielder Shane Robinson, designated right-hander Brooks Pounders for assignment, and placed infielder Jefry Marte on the disabled list because of a broken foot. Scioscia said Marte suffered the injury last week while with triple-A Salt Lake, fouling a pitch off his foot. At the time, the team believed it was only a bruise. It’s uncommon for teams to place players on the DL this month because of the absence of 25-man roster restrictions. The Angels have 36 active players. … ESPN announced it will broadcast the Angels’ Sept. 24 game in Houston on Sunday Night Baseball, changing the start time to 5 p.m. (PDT). It’ll be the Angels’ first Sunday night game this year. They’ll begin a four-game series the next night in Chicago, creating a tight turnaround between the two cities.

Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura