In every week of spring training, from every corner of the Angels clubhouse, the mantra was the same: We can't afford another slow start. We can't bury ourselves for the third consecutive April.
Three weeks into the season, the Angels had fallen five games out of first place. Arte Moreno, the intensely competitive owner, was not thrilled.
"I believe in this team," General Manager Jerry Dipoto told Moreno. "This team is going to win."
Moreno's response: "I hope that's right."
You could almost hear the squirm in Dipoto's voice as he told the story Wednesday afternoon, hours before the Angels clinched their first American League West championship in five years. This time last year, as the Angels limped to their worst finish in 10 years, Dipoto had no idea whether Moreno would fire him.
The season ended, and Moreno invited Dipoto to share his plans for revitalizing the Angels. Then he told Dipoto to get it done.
"It was a relief to me to find out," Dipoto said. "Last year was not a great year. From a roster-building standpoint, I made a lot of mistakes. From a quality-of-product-on-the-field standpoint, the first five months of the season were awful."
That the Angels emerged as the team with the best record in the major leagues this season — and that Moreno picked up Dipoto's 2015 option two months ago — is yet another reminder to ignore the headlines at the winter meetings. Winning the winter wins you nothing.
In Dipoto's first winter as the Angels' general manager, Moreno bought Albert Pujols, for $250 million, and C.J. Wilson for another $77.5 million. In Dipoto's second winter, Moreno bought Josh Hamilton for $125 million.
The Angels proceeded to open spring training with a news conference featuring Pujols, Hamilton and Mike Trout, an image perilously close to a West Coast version of LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.
"You can drive a Mercedes with a Yugo engine," Dipoto said, "but it doesn't really work."
That isn't intended as a knock on the guy who bought the Mercedes. Dipoto was the mechanic, and his job was to fix the pitching. He imported Joe Blanton, Sean Burnett, Tommy Hanson and Ryan Madson last year. He went 0 for 4.
This year? Dipoto opted for Kole Calhoun over Peter Bourjos for an outfield spot, traded Bourjos for third baseman David Freese and reliever Fernando Salas, traded slugger Mark Trumbo for desperately needed starters Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago, and refurbished the bullpen with trades for Huston Street and Jason Grilli and the winter signing of Joe Smith — the Angels' most expensive acquisition last winter, at $15.75 million.
That's six for six.
The Angels have used 27 relievers, tied for fourth-most in major league history. They have deployed that depth to help make up for the losses of Skaggs and ace Garrett Richards, to the point where reliever Cory Rasmus — an inventory player acquired last year for veteran reliever Scott Downs — somehow blossomed in the injury-depleted rotation, after not starting since he played Class-A ball.
"When you lose 40% of your starting rotation in [little more than] 10 days, there's a reason why everybody in the free world wanted to stick a fork in us," Dipoto said.
Winning also has bred a healthy and hard-won mutual respect between Dipoto, in his third year here, and Manager Mike Scioscia, in his 15th year. In his second month on the job, Dipoto fired Scioscia's longtime hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, and the thaw in the relationship between manager and general manager was slow in coming.
Dipoto said the tension between the two had less to do with player evaluation and more with on-field strategy. As an example, Dipoto said, "When I first got here, I was mystified by the way we ran the bases."
By now, Dipoto said, he has come around to Scioscia's way of thinking — that the Angels might run into plenty of outs, but aggressive running puts the other team on the defensive and forces enough errors to make the strategy worthwhile.
"He's had a Hall of Fame career as a manager," Dipoto said. "He's had a great impact on this organization, on this market, on this team this year. It's not accidental. There's a reason why he has had the success he has had."
That success includes the only World Series in Angels history. This will be the seventh red October for Scioscia, the first for Dipoto — the first, he is confident enough to suggest, of many to come.