ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The final inning of the Angels’ second straight nonplayoff season was a stunningly apt microcosm of the last two years, right down to the identity of the guy who handed Los Angeles its last loss.
The Texas Rangers rallied past the Angels on Wednesday night, just as they’ve done in the AL West standings over the past two years. The Angels’ bullpen failed them in the ninth inning, just as it did all too often for a team that long prided itself on peerless relief pitching.
And the Rangers did it on a clutch homer by Mike Napoli, the longtime Angels catcher. He had a career year after getting thrown out the Angel Stadium door last winter in what turned out to be a foolhardy move to address offensive weaknesses that have only grown.
After rookie closer Jordan Walden, who had 10 of the Angels’ league-worst 25 blown saves this season, gave up Napoli’s decisive blast, the Angels’ own rally fell woefully short. The season even ended appropriately on a strikeout by veteran Bobby Abreu, whose season-long struggles hampered Los Angeles’ offense.
For the first time since manager Mike Scioscia’s first two seasons in charge in 2000-01, the Angels are staying home from the postseason for the second consecutive October. The Angels were good — finishing with the AL’s sixth-best record at 86-76 — but not good enough to reclaim their spot among baseball’s elite.
“It’s difficult, man,” said clubhouse leader Torii Hunter, who rallied in the second half for another solid season. “Last year, I think we were out of it two weeks before the season was over, but this time we had a chance. It’s going to be hard to turn the page over. I’m going to be thinking about it every time I watch the playoffs, if I watch it at all. I like playing in October. I’m pretty sure everybody else does, too.”
While the Angels packed their gear and headed into an offseason of uncertainty Thursday, Scioscia stressed the positive aspects of Los Angeles’ ninth winning season in his impressive 12-year tenure.
The Angels were in contention for the division title until last week, and they weren’t eliminated from the wild-card chase until Monday. They still finished 10 games behind the defending league champion Rangers (96-66), who have taken over the Angels’ longtime role as the West’s dominant AL franchise.
After pulling 1 1/2 games behind Texas on Sept. 10, Los Angeles lost 11 of its final 17 games, including five of the last six.
“There’s a lot of things to pin down on why we fell short, but I think there’s a lot of things in that room that were good,” said Scioscia, who has 1,066 career wins. “The improvement on this club, it’s hopefully going to come from within, and also from external sources.”When the hot stove warms up, the Angels will attempt to address
those deficiencies, starting at catcher and third base and continuing through the back end of the starting rotation into the bullpen.
Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana comprise an enviable starting nucleus for a pitching staff that had the AL’s lowest ERA and allowed the second-fewest runs. Walden, despite his All-Star selection, was inconsistently impressive, and Scioscia seems intrigued by the prospect of bringing in a veteran closer next season for competition or replacement.
General manager Tony Reagins thinks the gap between Texas and Los Angeles isn’t huge, yet he might struggle to make moves with $99 million already committed to next season’s payroll.
The Angels had the fourth-biggest payroll in baseball this season at more than $142 million, and owner Arte Moreno rarely hesitates to spend money — yet there are obvious limits, even for a club that drew more than 3 million fans for the ninth straight season, even outdrawing the Dodgers.
The Angels were scrambling on offense from the moment it became clear Cuban first baseman Kendrys Morales wouldn’t return from a broken left ankle that occurred early last season. Rookie Mark Trumbo provided an enormous lift, stepping into an everyday role while leading the Angels with 29 homers and 87 RBIs — the first rookie to lead Los Angeles in both categories.
Scioscia said the club will know more about Morales’ latest recovery in December. If he comes back strong, the Angels must figure out how to spread playing time between their two slugging first basemen.
Trumbo has said he’s open to a position change, perhaps moving to the outfield or third base. The Angels’ outfield is fairly packed with talent including Hunter, Vernon Wells and youngsters Peter Bourjos and Mike Trout, so third base would be a fine fit — but it’s a tough position to master at a major-league level in just one offseason.
Scioscia thinks the Angels could use Trumbo judiciously at third, perhaps starting him in pitching matchups that are unlikely to create much action on that side of the infield.
“If he becomes a 50- to 60-game third baseman, it will deepen your lineup to have his bat in it,” Scioscia said.
And then there’s Wells, who made nearly $26.2 million this season while batting .218 with 25 homers and 66 RBIs. Scioscia might be Wells’ last adamant defender in Orange County, praising his power numbers while acknowledging he needs more from the veteran.
“There are some things that he showed he can still do,” Scioscia said. “He just didn’t do them with the consistency that we need to see.”
Los Angeles finally is rid of the brutal contracts given to departed flops Gary Matthews Jr. and Scott Kazmir, yet the slumping Abreu (.253 with eight homers and 60 RBIs) is signed for next season with another exorbitant $9 million salary.
Reagins must find the cash to re-sign double-play combo Erick Aybar and All-Star Howie Kendrick while still adding bullpen help and locating a catcher who can hit above .209 — Hank Conger’s average, well ahead of Jeff Mathis (.174) and Bobby Wilson (.189).
Yet Scioscia hopes fans don’t lose sight of the Angels’ successes. The manager sees the past two seasons as steps toward a long-term goal, not two steps back.
“A lot of the games we played were so close and could have gone either way,” said Haren, who went 16-10 in his first full season back home in Southern California.
“Some guys had great personal years and some guys didn’t, and that’s the way every year is for pretty much every team. Hopefully, the young guys have gotten experience and we’ll all come back next year even hungrier, just because it’s been a couple of years since we’ve been on top.”