If the Angels played as well every game as they did in winning two straight against the Dodgers this week and sweeping the teams’ four-game season series, they wouldn’t have to fight every day to keep alive their longshot hopes of grabbing the second American League wild-card playoff spot.
Winning with timely power and solid defense — and getting five strong innings from starter Jaime Barria on Wednesday out of a depleted rotation — had the Angels thinking about the feats they’re capable of pulling off if they can sustain the success they had at Dodger Stadium in the past two games. They fed off the emotions of two hostile sellout crowds and repeatedly came up with clutch plays to extend their domination of the Dodgers, giving Angels manager Brad Ausmus bragging rights at the next edition of his annual ski trip with Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, Ausmus’ onetime teammate and longtime friend. “It might come up,” Ausmus said, smiling.
If the Angels can play like this often enough, and if they can do it when they won’t get the built-in competitive lift of facing an opponent Mike Trout called “the best team in baseball,” they could take another upward turn in a season that has become a wild and unpredictable ride.
“Exactly. That’s kind of the plan,” outfielder Kole Calhoun said before his second home run in two games led the Angels to a 3-2 victory at Dodger Stadium on Wednesday night. “We’ve still got a couple of months left in the season. If we could get on a run, we could make this pretty interesting.”
The Dodgers, with a fat lead atop the National League West, have removed all suspense from their season — except whether they’ll make a move to boost a bullpen that has already collected 19 blown saves. They’ve been in first place outright since April 17 and have built a lead that peaked at 16 games Sunday, giving Roberts the luxury of time to tinker with his lineup and wait to see what Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, will do before the trade deadline arrives next Wednesday.
The Angels, who have two teams standing between them and that second wild-card berth, are playing for their season every day. They don’t have the starting pitching to finesse their way through the schedule and they don’t have the time to make a slow recovery from the shocking death of pitcher Tyler Skaggs, whose memorial service was held in Santa Monica on Monday. They’ve learned to cling to each other for comfort, to look within for strength.
“This team has definitely been packed with emotion lately, both good and bad. A lot of mourning and grieving still going on around here,” said Calhoun, who had six extra-base hits in the two games against the Dodgers. “I think it’s definitely brought us closer together.”
So far, they’ve supported each other through the unthinkable in admirable fashion.
“You never know which way a ballclub is going to go or respond to a tragedy like that. Sometimes it can inspire them and they play well, and sometimes it can go the other way,” Ausmus said.
Trout insisted he doesn’t look at the Angels’ status in the standings, though he knew precisely how much ground they’ll have to make up.
“No, it’s still July. We’ve got a lot of baseball left,” he said. “We’re going to push it and see what we can do these next few weeks and next few months.”
First baseman Albert Pujols also said he doesn’t monitor the standings daily. “I’ve been on teams that have been last and we ended up finishing first and end up having good success in the playoffs, so for us, I think it’s don’t look at who we’re chasing,” he said. “We cannot control what the other team does, but we can control ourselves, and that’s something that we stay focused on doing.”
It’s remarkable that they’re doing so well while still grieving for Skaggs, whose red road jersey was displayed on a hanger on a hook beside the locker that was set up for him in the visitors’ clubhouse. The Angels are honoring him by bringing his jersey on the road with them and keeping his locker intact at home. Better yet, they’re playing with his eagerness, enthusiasm and spirit. The ache of his absence is less painful some days than others, but it has not vanished.
“It’s always going to be there. Tyler is like a little brother to me and to a lot of guys here. Probably one of the best teammates that I’ve been around,” Pujols said. “You can never forget.
“But one thing is the great memories that we have, that’s what’s going to live with us the rest of our lifetimes. The one thing we want to do is go out there every day and win, and hopefully we get to the postseason and get to the World Series and hopefully dedicate the championship to him. I think that’s what he wanted to do and that’s what he tried to do every time he went out there. He’d take the ball and do his best, and that’s something that we’ve done the last three or four weeks here.”