Commentary

Angels can't shake latest funk

Blown ninth-inning lead to A's is more proof L.A.'s playoff hopes are nearly gone

Updated: September 25, 2011, 9:10 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- Before Sunday's game, I asked Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia whether he empathized with Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, whose team is teetering on the biggest September collapse in baseball history.

"I don't know if it's your worst nightmare," Scioscia said. "Things are going to happen when you're not playing at a level you should. When it happens at the end, it's magnified."

Given what happened a few hours later, it kind of sounds as though Scioscia was a prophet, doesn't it? Things -- often bad -- happen when you're not playing at a level you should.

The Angels' slow-speed derailment got a little more violent with Sunday's 6-5 loss to the Oakland A's, in which rookie closer Jordan Walden sailed an errant throw on what should have been a game-ending double play.

Angels
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonThe Angels hang their heads during the ninth inning as the A's stormed back from a 5-2 deficit.

Boston's collapse is so much more spectacular, but the Angels' inability to capitalize on it is, in some ways, equally dumbfounding. Walden blew this one, but there have been so many other mistakes in this 4-6 stretch against Baltimore, Toronto and Oakland. The bad at-bats, shaky relief work and fielding miscues have put the Angels on the brink of elimination.

It just doesn't feel like a Scioscia team. The Angels were the gate crashers in 2002. They stormed into the playoffs in 2004 and, for all but one of the next five seasons, they wouldn't let anyone get past them in September. Now, a massive door has opened up in front of them and they're tripping over their own shoelaces.

Is it over? How could you say that the way those two East Coast teams are playing? Anything feels possible.

But if over isn't here, it's just around the corner. I don't think the Angels will reach the playoffs, not because of anything Boston or Tampa Bay will do, but because I doubt they'll sweep the Texas Rangers the next three nights. The Rangers could party every night they're here, field lineups filled with September call-ups and limit their starters to four innings a night and the Angels still might not sweep it.

Why should we believe they're capable of such dramatic doings when they've been nothing but slightly worse than mediocre in the clutch so far?

"Being two or three back, that's not a good spot, not where you want to be," Peter Bourjos said.

Was it youth that sank this team? That theory will be floated after the rookie closer gave up four runs and made an awful throw even though pitching coach Mike Butcher had just visited the mound to instruct him to feed Erick Aybar on any hard grounder back to the mound. Walden saw Aybar and Howie Kendrick both by the bag, double-clutched and then sailed it out of Aybar's reach.

"I let the team down. We battled all day. I lost the game for us, pretty much, so it sucks," Walden said. "It's tough to do this."

Said Scioscia, "If we don't make our goal, it's not on Jordan. It's not on one player."

It's not and it is. Sunday's game felt like one of those pivotal, irreversible moments that happen in meaningful baseball games. The next batter, Kurt Suzuki, poked a double to right field, setting up the game-winning sacrifice fly by Coco Crisp. But there were so many other issues in this sputtering last 10 games.

The Angels' offense, after a brief flare-up in Toronto, has gone back to being inert. Other than Bourjos' two-run bloop single set up by a couple of walks, the Angels didn't do much again Sunday. On the season, they batted .216 against Oakland and went 8-11 against the 72-87 A's. Does that sound like a playoff team?

You can tell this one hurt some guys more than others. Walden is a 23-year old rookie closer with a 100-mph fastball. He'll regroup and, probably, have a fine career that will make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. He said he would do his best not to take the loss home with him even for one night.

"I feel like if I take it home with me, I might stay awake until like 6 in the morning. I might not get any sleep," Walden said. "So, I leave it here. I'm still down on myself, but I'm just going to relax and get ready for tomorrow."

It's the older guys, who know their time in the game is finite and dwindling, who take it the hardest. Torii Hunter spoke in conciliatory tones after Sunday's game, but you could see in his eyes that he felt like punching somebody.

"We've still got life left, but it's going down slowly," Hunter said.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.