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Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Are the Angels already in must-win territory?

By Ramona Shelburne

Torii Hunter
Torii Hunter, who had the winning sacrifice hit for the Angels on Tuesday, knows time is running out this season.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's hard not to look. It's even harder not to feel.

Reality -- the cold, hard version of it -- is everywhere for the Los Angeles Angels these days. The Texas Rangers are so far ahead in the American League West -- a cool 10 games with just 33 games to play -- it's not even worth checking their box scores after every game. The wild-card standings don't look much prettier with Oakland and Baltimore surging of late, pushing their lead over L.A. out to 4 1/2 games.

All that preseason hype and joy following the free-agent signings of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson feels like forever ago. All those expectations have turned to pressure. And if these Angels still couldn't wrap their heads around just what was at stake as the season turns toward its final month, the Boston Red Sox -- the last team to have entered a season with as much hype as the Angels did this year -- were in town for a three-game set.

Or rather, what's left of the Boston Red Sox following a shape-shifting nine-player trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers last week, were in town this week.

"It's almost September. It's getting close," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "What do we have left? Thirty-something games?"

For Hunter, 36, it is particularly late. He's in the final year of a five-year deal and, despite another solid season, there's no guarantee the Angels will bring him back next year with youngster Peter Bourjos patiently waiting in the wings for an opportunity.

Hunter has proven his value plenty of times in his five years in Anaheim, both on the field and in the clubhouse. He did so again Tuesday with a walk-off sacrifice fly in the bottom of the ninth off Sox closer Alfredo Aceves to give the Angels a 6-5 come-from-behind win.

It was the Angels' second such comeback victory over Boston in a week. The first one, a 14-13, 10-inning epic Aug. 23 at Fenway, was more dramatic. But as what's left of this season grows shorter, each win grows more important.

And no one understands that more than Hunter, who came here five seasons ago because he just never could get over the hump with the Minnesota Twins.

"You never know," Hunter said. "I never know. This might be my last year and I always wanted to win a World Series so … it's time to eat. Let's go. It's getting late for me."

The Angels were far from perfect Tuesday. Jered Weaver was once again good enough to win, but not as great as he had been earlier in the season. The Angels' defense committed another two errors, their offense left six runners on base.

But there remains reason for optimism, despite the deficit they still must make up over this final month of the season.

And it's hard to explain except to say that the Angels are not the Boston Red Sox of last season.

Their clubhouse is not toxic. Their manager is not loathed.

Sure, there is tension. And yes, their pitching has been abominable in August. But when this team has fallen behind lately, it has found a way to come back.

"The last seven days, we won five games. We've been playing pretty good baseball," Hunter said. "We're always going out there every day and grind. We didn't give up tonight. We got a lead early and kept grinding and got it done."

When the Red Sox went south last year, they fell off a collective cliff.

These Angels can see over that same cliff right now. As Hunter jokes -- "TV shows [the standings] all the time and I've just got to look at them."

But these Angels just might have enough left to jump over that cliff safely.

It is late. But it's not too late just yet.