Late surges did the Detroit Tigers all the good in the world and the Los Angeles Angels none of it after Monday’s proceedings were finished. The Tigers stood with the American League Central in their hip pockets and the Angels stood with no place to go the rest of October other than playing out a two-game string with the Seattle Mariners and praying what they managed to do down the stretch this time would mean anything better than what they didn’t do in the season’s first month.
The Washington Nationals hung in to clinch the National League East despite their not-so-dominant play of the past week with the Atlanta Braves—bent on sending retiring Hall of Famer in waiting Chipper Jones into retirement a winner—clinching the number one NL wild card slot.
The Nats might have lost Monday night to the Philadelphia Phillies, but the Braves lost 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, handing the Nats the division title. Still, it amounted to a changing of the NL East guard with the Nats clinching while playing the Phillies, who owned the division for the previous few seasons including a World Series conquest in 2008. Manager Charlie Manuel can fume all he wishes, but his Phillies got old and banged up this year, perhaps the cruelest punctuation coming before the weekend when Ryan Howard dropped a lead pipe on his foot (it was the device he uses in the on-deck circle to loosen up before a plate appearance) and kissed what was left of his own faltering season goodbye.
The Baltimore Orioles, arguably one of the season’s three feel-great stories, had a crimp put in their hopes to outlast the New York Yankees for the AL East title when the Tampa Bay Rays—eliminated nonetheless from a wild card prospect despite an 11-of-12 charge, when the Oakland Athletics beat the AL West-winning Texas Rangers—beat them Monday night while they got no help (as if they could expect any?) from the Boston Red Sox (or their fans, one of them, at least) against the Empire Emeritus in New York.
The St. Louis Cardinals, defending an unlikely 2011 World Series championship, clinched at least a tie for the second National League wild-card slot when they took care of the NL Central-winning Cincinnati Reds. The Los Angeles Dodgers, whose manager Don Mattingly gave his charges a not-so-polite lecture last week, bagged a sixth straight win to keep their own faint second wild card hopes alive when they beat the NL West winning San Francisco Giants.
And, somewhere in the middle of all that, your heart had to go to the Angels to a certain extent. They opened the season 8-15 thanks in large part to Albert Pujols’s horrendous season-opening, homerless slump; they stood at 6-14 when they called up a rookie outfielder named Mike Trout.
The Angels have gone 82-57 since Trout’s callup, and Trout has lined himself up as the should-be American League Most Valuable Player. He did everything he could think of against the Mariners Monday night. He instigated a three-run bushwhacking of faltering Felix Hernandez in the first inning; he turned up a bomb short of the cycle; he went 4-for-5 with three runs batted in.
All season long, Trout’s been in the thick of it with his bat, his legs, his glove; he’s outplayed Miguel Cabrera, whom half the world thinks should be the MVP thanks to his Triple Crown challenge but who doesn’t do quite as many things as Trout does, particularly taking extra bases and keeping the other guys from scoring runs. (Note: The Angels have a +28 run differential over the Tigers, and a better season’s record. That should count in the MVP thinking, too.) They called his rookie season (does anyone doubt he’ll take home the Rookie of the Year prize?) historic. And it wasn’t enough for the Angels to overcome that season-opening free fall.
It wasn’t enough to overcome inconsistent starting pitching, periodically testy relief pitching, a continued lack of production from the catching position (Mike Napoli to the Angels: “Miss me yet?”), and a couple of key mistakes down a stretch that otherwise saw the Angels with baseball’s best record since 21 August. (27-11.) From 1 September through Monday night, they were 19-9. That’s championship play any way you view it, but it wasn’t enough to overcome:
* That 8-15 April.
* C.J. Wilson, their second marquee off-season signing splash, pitching like an All-Star in the first half and like an also-ran in the second.
* Ervin Santana collapsing from a career-best 2011 earned run average to a 9-13/5.30 in 30 starts in 2012, mostly thanks to a first half in which he looked like he didn’t belong in a major league or even a Triple-A uniform before rehorsing himself in the second half a little too late.
* Dan Haren going 12-12 with an ERA barely under five, thanks in large part to missing time with back trouble through which he was foolish enough to try pitching.
* Jered Weaver, their no-questions-asked best pitcher, missing three weeks with a couple of injuries. It’s entirely possible that had he not missed those starts, the Angels might well have brought off their wild card push, since he might have won at least three of those missed starts.
* A bullpen that almost rivaled the New York Mets’ for self-implosions, tied for the most blown saves in the American League and having nobody much behind mid-season saviour of sorts Ernesto Frieri.
The best news: The Angels may have spent a big chunk of the farm to bring Zack Greinke aboard, and he proved worth it in the end. (And don’t be surprised if they make a push to sign him after, most likely, declining Santana’s 2013 club option.)
But they still have some good coming up through the farm, with particular notices being paid to lefthander Nick Maronde, who spent his first professional season kicking his way all the way to Double-A. The Angels called him up in September and he was lights out from the bullpen, on lefthanded hitters especially, and he could show up in Anaheim next season either at the back of the rotation or as a temporary fixer in that bullpen.
The critical farm issue: Unloading their best from the upper levels means the Angels’ best prospects are low enough that you may not see much out of them for another year or two.
But this year’s Angels weren’t exactly this year’s Cubs. (The poor Cubs. They’re finishing in triple digits worth of losses this year—for the first time since Sandy Koufax nailed his third and final Cy Young Award.) They could still finish with 90 wins. And they’re still an excellent team. Nobody would be shocked to see them go to the postseason next year. Now that Pujols has made his adjustments to the American League, he isn’t likely to open the season in a month-long slumber. And even if Trout doesn’t have another history-hugging season in him, he’s still likely to be their ignition switch for seasons yet to be.