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Angels drop below .500, again, in 7-2 loss to Rays

If the Angels are to make a late-summer run, if not to make the playoffs to at least make things interesting in the American League wild-card race, they might want to start soon.

They remained stuck in neutral in a 7-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in Tropicana Field on Wednesday night, falling to 54-55 on the season. They’re 9 ½ games behind Seattle and now Oakland for the last playoff spot.

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Since June 25, the Angels have not strayed more than two games above or below the .500 mark, the very definition of a team spinning its wheels. They’ve been neither good enough to cut into the wild-card deficit nor bad enough to fall so far back they have no chance.

It appeared the Angels turned a corner last week with four straight wins, scoring 38 runs in those games against the Chicago White Sox and Mariners. They have now lost three in a row, along with catcher Martin Maldonado and second baseman Ian Kinsler, who were traded for prospects in the last week.

They still have enough offense to make a push. Mike Trout could win his third MVP award, Kole Calhoun has been one of the hottest hitters in baseball for a month, Andrelton Simmons is having a solid season, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton have hit well since mid-July, and Shohei Ohtani is back.

The Angels tend to run hot and cold though. They mustered only six hits, none after the sixth inning, struck out 11 times and went one for six with runners in scoring position Wednesday night.

Their starting pitchers, while ranking sixth in the AL with a 4.07 ERA, have produced only 42 quality starts, 11th in the league, and they rank 13th with 566 2/3 innings pitched. That has put a heavy burden on an overworked bullpen that has thrown 407 innings, second to Tampa Bay.

“There are some things that have to fall into place to have that run, but yes, I think we’re capable of it,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “I feel it. These guys are playing hard, they’re working hard, we’re just not attacking the ball on a consistent basis, and it comes back to our starting pitching.

“It’s tough to absorb the one-out start, the starters coming out in the third or fourth inning. We need those guys to get us to a certain point.”

Angels right-hander Nick Tropeano got to the sixth inning Wednesday night, and he escaped bases-loaded jams twice, getting Jake Bauers to line into an inning-ending double play in the third inning and striking out Ji-Man Choi with a full-count changeup to end the fifth.

But he couldn’t hold a 2-0 lead, giving up three runs and three hits in the fourth, an inning that started with Tommy Pham getting hit by a pitch. Tropeano gave up four earned runs and seven hits in 5 2/3 innings, walking four and striking out four.

“I think the issue this season and especially today has been the big inning,” said Tropeano, who fell to 4-6 with a 4.94 ERA. “It’s been haunting me throughout this year and today especially. I think it stems from free passes. I have to clean up my mechanics, be more aggressive and trust my stuff.”

The Angels made an early splash when Calhoun became the seventh player in Tropicana Field history to homer into the Rays Touch Tank beyond the right-center field wall, driving a hanging curve from Rays starter Tyler Glasnow 427 feet for a 1-0 lead.

It was the right fielder’s 13th homer since his June 12 return from the disabled list, a torrid 36-game stretch in which Calhoun has hit .302 with nine doubles, 30 RBIs and 27 runs to raise his average from .145 to .211.

The Angels made it 2-0 in the fourth when Upton singled, took third on Pujols’ double and scored on Simmons’ 105-mph line-drive single to center.

After Tropeano hit Pham in the fourth, Joey Wendle doubled to right to advance Pham to third. Choi lined out to left, Upton charging in for the catch and making a strong throw to cutoff man Luis Valbuena to keep Pham at third.

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Or so the Angels thought. Valbuena made an ill-advised, awkward flip to third in an attempt to pick off Pham, even though he had no play. Simmons was not close enough to the bag to catch the toss, which rolled into foul territory, allowing Pham to score.

The error, the first of two in the game for Valbuena, was unsightly, but Pham would have scored on Willy Adames’ ensuing RBI single that tied the score 2-2. Mallex Smith followed with an RBI triple to left-center for a 3-2 Rays lead.

Adames’ homer made it 4-2 in the sixth, and the Rays tacked on three runs off Hansel Robles in the eighth on Matt Duffy’s RBI single and Bauers’ two-run homer to right-center.

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