That is the mantra Angels closer Huston Street resorted to again and again this spring, in informal conversations with his teammates and in formal, organizational meetings.
“Remember what you felt in September,” he said. “That feeling, pulling for each other every pitch because you had to, because we were seven, eight games back, because we’re running out of time. If we can learn that, bring that into the season.…"
He paused for effect. The 2015 Angels finished one game short of the postseason, one win away from a potential playoff run after losing 19 games in August and just eight during a furious run in the season’s final month.
Ironically, were the Angels to finish one game away from the playoffs in 2016, most observers would deem the season a success. Across the sport, a .500 campaign is being projected.
On the record, the players do not agree with those predictions, although there have been indications they know the team has holes. Starter C.J. Wilson said he never expected the Angels to pony up for a premium left fielder because of the luxury-tax threshold. First baseman Albert Pujols acknowledged as he reported to spring training that the Angels didn’t “look too good” on paper, but added “you can’t go by that.”
For what it’s worth, the Angels looked good during the spring exhibition season, though among the starting pitchers more questions were elicited than answered: Wilson got hurt, veteran right-hander Jered Weaver’s velocity again declined, and Matt Shoemaker struggled. But the lineup hit in a way it did not in 2015.
The players say the offense will determine whether they win this season. Asked what the key factor might be, right fielder Kole Calhoun said it would be on-base percentage.
“Especially in the bottom of the lineup, leading up to the top, getting guys into scoring position for [Mike] Trout and Pujols,” Calhoun said. “That’ll be a pretty big indication of how we’re doing this year.”
The Angels’ primary leadoff hitter last season was shortstop Erick Aybar. In 51 starts atop the order, he hit .233 with a .270 on-base percentage. This season, it will be third baseman Yunel Escobar, who batted .314 with a .375 OBP last season. Batting second against right-handed pitching will be Daniel Nava, who has a .358 career OBP.
Accordingly, the Angels’ offense hummed. Only two teams in the major leagues, Arizona and San Francisco, scored more runs per spring game than they did.
“That’s a byproduct of what our mentality is,” Angels hitting coach Dave Hansen said, “Let’s put the ball in play. That’ll be our emphasis. And OBP will be a byproduct of that, for sure. Those guys are putting a number to it, and I get that.”
Said Angels General Manager Billy Eppler: “We see the approach that we were hoping to see.”
The Angels will go through 2016 with mostly holdovers. Eighteen of the 25 players likely to open the season as Angels spent last September with the team, including the entire starting rotation.
Garrett Richards will be the No. 1 starter, but the Angels don’t have other top-end options. However, they do have depth in the middle and back of the rotation.
“Our starting pitching has to be the reason we win games,” left-hander Hector Santiago said.
“I think that’s what this team is doing a great job of in spring,” Street said. “Not talking about trying to win the division. Win the day, win the at-bat, win the pitch. The real lesson is that they all matter, Game 1 to 162. A lot of teams say a version of that same truth. But very few teams actually go through it together.”
The Angels already have.
“I think one of the healthiest things that happened to this core group of guys is the month of August,” Street said. “People realized you can’t just show up and play. If — and it’s a big if, because it’s a six-month if — we can take what we practiced, what we learned from August and September and apply that, that sense of urgency, we’ll be good.”
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura