There’s Always Next Year: 9/24

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To close out a nine game home-stand after a 3-3 start, the Angels had the burden of having to face a Cleveland team who’d won 24 of their last 25 games.  Fortunately, after dropping the first two games to the Tribe, the Halos found themselves no worse off in the wild card race against the Twins who lost a three game set to the Yankees in the Bronx.  From there however, all luck ran out as Minnesota took four straight against Detroit and the Angels increased their losing streak to a season-tying high of six games with a third loss against the Indians followed by consecutive losses in Houston to the Astros before salvaging their lone win of the week on Sunday.  Houston, and Cleveland are the class of the league and the Angels have not success against either in the last two years.  In fact, the sweep by the Indians made it 10 straight wins over the Halos dating back to 2016.

By week’s end, the Angels (77-78) had fallen below the .500 mark for the first time since August 9, when their record stood at 57-58.  Dreams of a playoff birth or a run to something perhaps greater belong now to only the eternal optimists or those with the greatest of imaginations or fantasies.

Perhaps the Indians will finally win their first World Series since 1948, or perhaps their knack for losing when confronted with opportunity as they did last year against the Cubs (and back in the 90’s against the Braves) will continue, but they are a team with a chance to finish the regular season with the most victories in Major League baseball.  Just a month ago, the Tribe stood twenty games behind the Dodgers in the race for best record but their fates have reversed within just a period of thirty days.  Should the Indians surpass the Dodgers, they might thank the Angels for six of their wins and for right-hander, Mike Clevinger, an ex-Angel (traded for Vinnie Pestano in 2014) who at 11-5, has become an important cog in the Indian’s pitching corps.

There haven’t been many weeks in the season where highlights were hard to point out, but this week will not be remembered for many things good.  Once again, Garrett Richards battled Justin Verlander to a near draw but unfortunately came up short for the second time in as many weeks.  Justin Upton went deep four times to set a career home run mark of 35.  Albert Pujols hit home run number 23 and now stands just 16 homers short of Ken Griffey’s 630 for for sixth on the all-time list. Willie Mays is 46 ahead of Albert with 660.  Pujols is also now within 38 hits of 3,000, a milestone he should reach easily early in the 2018 season.  With four years remaining on his contract, should Pujols remain healthy and average approximately 140 hits a year, he has a chance to accumulate some 3,500 hits, a number which would place him fourth all-time behind Rose, Cobb, Aaron, and Musial.  Perhaps not all that likely perhaps Pujols even considers retirement after next season, but wherever his numbers finally land, he will certainly find himself as a resident of Cooperstown within five years after hanging up his cleats.

The Angels hosted the annual Ducks Night in the first game of the series against the Indians.  Unfortunately, neither Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Hampus Lindholm, or Francois Beauchemin could get their BP hits in against Mike Clevinger.  With the baseball season reaching its conclusion, it’ll be fun to see the Ducks on ice again in the weeks ahead.  Amazing to believe that their regular season won’t be completed until the ’18 Angels leave Tempe and return to the Big A next April!

There’s always next year?  Last year finally turned into “next year” for the long losing Cubbies.  Maybe this year will be “next year” for the Tribe. As to whether next year might truly turn into be our year for Halo fans, stay tuned to Angels-Across-America.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hanging Around: 9/17

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After dropping four straight to the A’s in Oakland, the Astros’s came to town with Justin Verlander, their newly acquired ace, on the mound to face the Halo’s.  As the ‘Stros are one of the favorites to capture the AL pennant this year, the addition of an all but certain future Hall of Famer, strongly enhances Houston’s opportunity to secure it’s first World Series title ever.

Just two weeks after the massive and indescribable devastation which resulted from Hurricane Harvey, the Astros have become a rallying cause for the City they represent and stand at the precipice of winning the AL’s Western Division flag for the first time since changing league’s in 2014 when they lost a whopping 111 games.

In his first outing since his arrival from Detroit minutes before the waiver trade deadline, Verlander beat the Mariners at Safeco last week.  On Tuesday, after giving up a leadoff double to Brandon Phillips, himself a waiver wire acquisition, Verlander dominated throughout his eight inning stint.  Unfortunately for the Angels, Verlander’s performance outshined Garrett Richards’ impressive return to the Big A for the first time since April 25, 2016.  Encouraging as Garrett’s start was, the 1-0 loss was a tough one to swallow coming with only eighteen games left in the season and opportunities to gain a wild card birth slipping away.  And, despite an impressive performance by Tyler Skaggs on Tuesday that accompanied some heavy hitting by Phillips,  Justin Upton, Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun and Luis Valbuena, the loss of a three game set to Houston could not have come at a more inopportune time as the rival Twins took three in a row against the Padres and Jays at the beginning of the week.

The Angels rebounded at week’s end to take two of three from the “other” Texas team, the Rangers who came into town trailing the Angels by only two games in the loss column.  In winning the first two games against a long time arch-rival, the Halos climbed back to within a game of the Twins.  Unfortunately, L.A. is struggling to keep their rotation intact despite the welcome return of Garrett Richards but who doubtlessly will be limited by a restricted pitch count.

In the opener against the Rangers, the Angels were forced to start Bud Norris, the club’s leader in games saved, as it appears that Andrew Heaney, recently returned from Tommy John surgery, will likely be unavailable for the remainder of the regular season.  With Matt Shoemaker on the DL after surgery, JC Ramirez facing the prospect of surgery as well, Nick Tropeano sidelined through the start of the Arizona Fall League, and Alex Meyer likely out until the start of the 2019 season, the Angels will have a lot of  juggling to do in their rotation.  Seven relief pitchers went to the mound on Friday en route to a 7-6 victory.  Norris, Jose Alvarez, Blake Wood, Yusmeiro Petit, and Blake Parker excelled.  And though Jesse Chavez and Cam Bedrosian did their best to undermine those efforts, the Angels escaped with a 7-6 victory thanks to the timely hitting of Andrelton Simmons and Justin Upton, together with a two run timely homer off the bat of CJ Cron.

Saturday’s victory against the Rangers coming on the strong seven inning shutout pitching performance of Parker Bridwell and perfect one inning performances by Middleton, Bedrosian and Petit brought some much needed momentum and a renewed sense of optimism to the club.  Justin Upton’s two solo shots giving him a career high 103 RBI provided the margin of victory.  Upton’s acquisition at the deadline by General Manager Billy Eppler might bode well this year should the Angels advance to the playoffs, and for years to come should Upton not exercise his right to opt out of his current contract at the end of the regular season.  Perhaps, the years long left field “dilemma” that was intended to be resolved by the signing of Josh Hamilton several years back has been eliminated.  An outfield of Upton, Trout and Calhoun should comfort the Angel faithful.

Sadly, the week ended on a sour note for the Angels as they dropped a 4-2 decision to the Rangers.  Garrett Richards pitched relatively well retiring 12 in a row during one stretch, but unfortunately, this transpired after a rocky first two innings in which Richards yielded a two-run double to Adrian Beltre and a massive 490 foot blast by Joey Gallo deep into the Big A’s expansive turf in right centerfield.  The Angels best shot to emerge with a win came when Albert Pujols’ bases loaded drive to right was hauled in by Shin-Soo Choo at the warning track in the bottom of the fifth.  The loss, coupled with a Minnesota win dropped the Angels one behind the Twins in the race for the second wild card spot with thirteen games remaining in the season.

With just two weeks to go, the Angels are still….hanging around!

 

 

Short Distance on A Long Road: 9/10

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The road ahead was paved with uncertainty when pitchers and catchers reported to Tempe on the fifteenth of February. It still is. But, after nearly seven months, what has come into clear focus is that the 2017 Angels persevere–despite adversity, and in spite of the fact that nothing comes their way with ease.

The Angels labored hard on Labor Day and emerged with a scrappy 11-9 triumph that more resembled a boxing match than a baseball game. All season long, the Halos have shown determination, tenacity, and an ability to endure and go the distance. Though there are ample illustrations of these attributes, Monday’s game against the A’s in Oakland typifies these gritty traits better than most. Battered by four runs in the first round, the Angels counterpunched with their own four-score in the second, only to fall behind again in the third. Subsequently, each time the Angels pulled ahead, the A’s seemed to rebound, and, when the match reached its “rounds” limit, the two clubs were tied up in a clench. Of course though, there are no draws in baseball, so the game played on. In the eleventh frame, the Angels took full advantage of a walk and hit by pitch when Kole Calhoun tripled to score the battle’s decisive runs. Still, the Halos needed to fight off a final A’s rally to take the match after more than 4 ½ hours had elapsed. In sending twelve pitchers to the mound during the course of the contest, the Angels set an American League record. While the win was most welcome, the pitching performance of Parker Bridwell who pitched but three innings for the second consecutive time while giving up six runs or more, has to concern the California club. With JC Ramirez out for the season, the Angels will need the unheralded Bridwell to perform as brilliantly as he has since he was first inserted into the rotation in late May. No doubt that the Angels would not be where they are without the early April acquisition from the O’s, but there simply is no formula to reach the playoff’s without continued significant contributions from Bridwell in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday’s four plus hour slugfest was a virtual repeat of Monday’s and fortunately, brought with it the same extra inning triumph. Once again, the Angels needed a plethora of pitchers to gain the victory. And once again, the win was accompanied by a touch of the dramatic. Whereas on Monday, the game ended with two Athletics on Board, Tuesday’s game concluded with all bases occupied by A’s. Two near fatal endings fortunately resulted in two unexpected wins… not how one wants to win ball games, but in a September pennant race, wins of any type are most welcome. CJ Cron could not have performed better in the clutch with both a key home run and a triple late in the game. Ben Revere’s pinch single in the tenth produced the game winner. But perhaps the best news to come out of this Halo victory was the return to the mound of Garrett Richards, the ace of the staff, who was injured in early April during his first, and only outing of the season. In 3 1/3 innings, Richards demonstrated that though his stamina was not yet in the place where he needs it to reach, his form and abilities are seemingly back. The return of Skaggs, Heaney, and now Richards may not bring about a full and complete October surprise but it just might deliver a September to remember. We shall soon see.

While a sweep of the A’s would have been welcome and sweet, the 3-1 loss on Wednesday brought with it a possible silver lining as Tyler Skaggs came through with an impressive pitching performance, striking out a career tying nine, in six innings of solid work.

The Angels capped off the week with a come from behind victory against the Mariners in Seattle after dropping the first two of a three game set in the Emerald City. Justin Upton, in his ninth game wearing red, produced the game winning RBI’s with a double that one-hopped the left centerfield wall. The hit followed a sacrifice bunt by Brandon Phillips, advancing Ben Revere to second, while taking a potential key at-bat from Mike Trout’s hands. Fortunately, since the acquisition of Upton, Mike Scioscia can now afford to make this type of strategic choice as Albert Pujols is now preceded by Upton in a lineup designed to better protect Trout. The win allowed the Halos to climb within a game of Minnesota who currently holds the second wild card position, and to avoid a four game losing streak, heading into the final three weeks of the season. Critically, Parker Bridwell bounced back with a strong outing following two beatings at the hands of the A’s that surely had all Halo fans more than a little concerned.

The Angels now return to the Big A for a nine game home stand which includes three games each against Division rivals Houston and Texas, as well as a trio of contests versus the AL leading Cleveland Indians who currently own an eighteen game win streak. Winners of 38 out of 69 games at home, the Angels will need to play better against these three teams who have consistently bested them throughout the season. The Angels are 5-8 against the Astros, 6-10 against the Rangers, and 0-3 against the Indians. The Astros’ recent acquisition of Justin Verlander from Detroit will only make things more difficult for the Angels.

Hopefully, the long journey from the late winter days in Arizona will have the happiest of endings. With nineteen games to go, the distance remaining is short and only through consistent winning can the Angels hope to play deep into October.

Enter the Unexpected: 9/3

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The early week sweep of the A’s to conclude a home stand that began with some less than desired results, came as more of a relief, than a reason to celebrate. Still, the three consecutive wins brought with them a source of optimism as the Angels headed off to Arlington to face the Rangers, and hopefully make up for the 3-1 series loss to Texas at the Big A, a week back.

Leaving home brought the Angels an expected off day, but what was not anticipated was the significant overhaul of the ball club that General Manager Billy Eppler engineered on August 31, the last day acquired players might be eligible for post season play. For some time now, the Halos have been operating with deficiencies in left field and at second base. Though Josh Hamilton was acquired with much fanfare, and at a great cost to fill the left field gap, his stay with the Angels was both brief, and wholly unsuccessful. And with the trade a few years back of Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney to address pitching needs, the rotation of players at the keystone position has not resulted in establishing a reliable successor to the long time and much beloved Angel second baseman. It was assumed that these two long term needs would be addressed in the upcoming offseason, but with the Angels on the precipice of a playoff position, unexpected action came swiftly this week.

In the early afternoon of August 31, seemingly out of nowhere, it was announced that Justin Upton, a coveted free agent outfielder this past offseason, had been acquired from Detroit. Then, within hours, came the news that Brandon Phillips, a four time all-star second baseman would leave the Braves to join the Angels. Just like that, the Angels were transformed from a team that seemed offensively challenged into a club that had a potent and balanced lineup. The optimism for September, and possibly October rose exponentially, and the dreams of Angel fans across America became instantly palpable. Angel followers had not anticipated these moves at the waiver deadline, nor were their rumors circulating about such possibilities. Full credit must go to Eppler, as well as Angels owner, Arte Moreno. Not only will the Angels be improved for the balance of the year but they must now be viewed as a contender in the years ahead should Upton and Phillips stay with the club and perform to expectations…provided of course the pitching staff gets healthy, stays healthy, and deliver what’s long been expected of it.

One might have thought that these acquisitions would produce immediate results, especially after the Oakland sweep. The A’s clearly were no match for the Angels at home…and that was before the arrivals of Upton and Phillips.  This past Monday, Andrew Heaney displayed superior pitching abilities in a 3-1 defeat of the Athletics. Though he went only six innings, Heaney struck out a career high ten batters and limited the A’s to two hits. In relief, Middleton, Petit, and Parker were solid in nailing down the win. On Tuesday, the Angels bats powered up in an 8-2 drubbing of the A’s which saw Madonado go deep, and Cron go deep twice. Finally, on Wednesday, the Halos showed a trait that has been the hallmark of their success this season, resilience. Staked to a 3-0 early lead, Parker Bridwell imploded, and within an instant, the Angels trailed 8-3. But, thanks to a homerun by Pujols (his second of the game) and a grand slam by Pennington, the Halos triumphed in a game that engendered some wonderful and positive emotion.

So, heading into Texas, hopes were high that with Upton and Phillips aboard, the Angels would send the Rangers and the American League a message that they were a force to be reckoned with down the stretch. Perhaps they will be, but the three game set in Texas highlighted that much as the Angels had addressed their hitting needs, the pitching staff appears to be riddled with question marks. Yielding 21 runs over 3 games as they did in Arlington, will not be a formula that might bring success to the Angels and result in a wild card birth. One can only hope that the staff is in the midst of either growing pains or a temporary late season slump.

The highlight of the Texas series was their sole win, which came on Saturday night. Down 4-2 with two outs in the ninth, Luis Valbuena doubled and CJ Cron followed with a line drive home run, just clearing the fence in left field on the fair side of the foul pole. A clutch hit by Kole Calhoun to drive in two made the difference in the tenth inning and gave the Angels a needed win following a valiant rally in Friday night’s game to tie the score, fell short.  The loss on Friday night felt especially bad as the second base umpire made three clearly incorrect calls, and though two were overturned, the last one, occurring in the ninth inning was inexplicably upheld and was partially responsible for the loss. Ugh!  On Sunday, the Angels fell behind early yet again, only to nearly tie the game with three runs in the top of the ninth. Unfortunately, they needed one more score and could not push it across as Luis Valbuena grounded to third to leave the bases loaded. Double Ugh!

If there were any silver linings in the series loss at Arlington, it could be seen in the play of Albert Pujols who went 7-13 with 7 RBI’s. With those runs batted in, Pujols now has 1,907 RBI’s and has moved past Willie Mays for 10th on the all-time list. Pujols now trails Eddie Murray by just ten RBI’s and Jimmie Foxx by 15.

Perhaps the addition of Upton and Phillips will afford everyone in the lineup some better protection and allow all an opportunity to see better pitches. Time will tell. One thing though is for certain: If the Angels are to play into October, they’ll need better outings from the starters, and more consistent efforts out of the pen…especially from Cam Bedrosian and Kenyan Middleton who have struggled significantly of late.

The AAA pitcher of the month for August was Blake Parker who seems to be Mike Scioscia’s choice of late to close games for the Angels. Parker picked up 3 saves in August, giving up but 3 runs in 13 outings, all in one game. Parker had a 2.13 ERA during August and held opposing batters to a .119 batting average. Honorable mention goes to Jesse Chavez who has performed well since losing his spot in the rotation and being relegated to the pen. Mike Trout had slightly better offensive numbers during August than CJ Cron did, but Cron’s clutch play, accompanied by 7 home runs and 18 RBI’s earned him the AAA batting honors.

The Angels have 25 games remaining down the stretch. They are tied with Baltimore, 1½ games behind the final playoff spot in the AL. To make the playoffs, they’ll need to win about 15 additional games. Make a wish. Say a prayer. Think good thoughts. Hope for the best.