SEATTLE — It was a common refrain — a mantra, really — in April and early May, when Albert Pujols couldn’t hit, the offense couldn’t score and the bullpen blew six of its first seven save opportunities.
“It’s not how you start,” the Angels kept saying, “it’s how you finish.”
Well, sometimes it is how you start.
The Angels beat the Seattle Mariners, 8-4, in Safeco Field on Monday night to improve to 27-11 since Aug. 21, the best record in baseball in that span. But they were 18-25 in the first seven weeks of the season, and because of that awful start, they’re now finished.
A team with a $159-million payroll and World Series aspirations, one with the best hitter of the last decade and perhaps the best player of the next decade, was officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Mike Trout had four hits, falling a home run shy of the cycle, and drove in three runs, Howie Kendrick had four hits and two runs batted in, and C.J. Wilson gave up two earned runs and six hits in 61/3 innings in the win over the Mariners, but it didn’t matter.
Oakland beat Texas, 4-3, to clinch the final American League playoff berth. The Athletics are assured of at least a wild-card spot, but they trail the Rangers by one game and have a chance to win the AL West.
The Angels are three games behind Oakland with two to play and will be out of the playoffs for the third year in a row.
“With the ballclub we have, we should not be in this position,” said right fielder Torii Hunter, who willed the Angels to several September victories with a .351 average and 27 RBIs in 28 games during the month. “It’s as simple as that.”
The Angels dug a deep hole with their sluggish start, falling eight games behind the Rangers on May 21, and the rest of their season was an uphill climb.
Pujols, signed to a 10-year, $240-million deal in December, had the worst start of his career, hitting .197 with one home run through May 14.
The slugger seemed to drag the the offense down with him — through May 21, the Angels hit .249 with a .303 on-base percentage, .377 slugging percentage and averaged 3.6 runs per game.
But Pujols found his stroke, speedy leadoff hitter Trout was promoted from triple A in late April and sent a surge of electricity through the lineup, and the Angels got back into contention behind a prolific offense that hit .283 with a .341 on-base percentage, .455 slugging percentage and averaged 5.2 runs since May 22.
A 39-22 run from May 22 to July 31 moved the Angels to within three games of the Rangers, and they were poised to cut the lead to two games when they took a six-run lead into the fifth inning in Texas on Aug. 1.
But the Rangers scored four runs in the fifth inning and tied it with runs in the eighth and ninth. Chris Iannetta and Pujols homered in a three-run 10th, but Texas rallied for four runs in the bottom of the 10th and a stunning 11-10 victory.
The loss sent the Angels into an 18-game spiral in which they were 5-13 and their pitchers combined for a 6.76 earned-run average. A four-game sweep at the hands of Tampa Bay knocked the Angels nine games back Aug. 19.
The Angels rebounded and moved to within one game of the second wild-card spot Sept. 8, but a handful of gut-wrenching late-September losses prevented them from catching Oakland and Texas.
“When we got Trout, he started getting on base and causing havoc, and that changed a lot of things,” Hunter said. “The pitchers beared down more, the offense stepped it up. All cylinders started clicking the last four months.”
Trout showed his considerable skills Monday night, doubling and scoring in a three-run first inning, hitting a run-scoring single in the fourth and a two-run triple in a three-run sixth that knocked Seattle ace Felix Hernandez out of the game.
Trout is hitting .325 and has 129 runs, third-most in AL history by a rookie behind Joe DiMaggio’s 132 in 1936 and Ted Williams’ 131 in 1939.
“We could win 90 games and finish 20 games over .500 — that’s a very good season,” outfielder Mark Trumbo said. “But unfortunately, we dug ourselves such a big hole, we weren’t able to get out of it.”