It’s one thing to play meaningless games in late September. Plenty of teams do that. It’s another to be so far out of playoff contention that you’re playing them in mid-August, with a quarter of the season left.
That’s a fate reserved for the most moribund clubs, a rag-tag group that now includes the Angels, who entered 2013 with a $142-million payroll and World Series aspirations but have been a colossal flop.
The Angels lost to the Cleveland Indians, 4-1, in 14 innings early Wednesday morning after Joe Blanton gave up his major league-leading 29th home run, a two-run shot to Drew Stubbs. The Angels failed to score after loading the bases with no outs in the 10th.
The Angels have lost 18 of 25 games since July 26 and are now a season-high 17 1/2 games behind Texas in the American League West. With so little to play for, a big challenge for them in the final six weeks will be staying motivated and maintaining their focus and intensity so things don’t get even uglier.
“Your goal is to make the playoffs, but once that’s out of reach, you have to play for pride, the respect you get from taking it to people,” said first baseman Mark Trumbo, who leads the team with 29 homers and 83 runs batted in. “You get to this level, I think everyone should have it in their DNA to be a great competitor.
"As challenging as this game is, I can’t see many guys having much success who don’t have that inner drive to beat the guy they’re going up against. The easy thing to do is roll over. You just can’t give in to that.”
The Angels lost focus twice during Tuesday night’s five-hour, 17-minute marathon, once when catcher Chris Iannetta lost track of the outs and took several steps toward the dugout after Nick Swisher whiffed for the second out in the sixth. Their other slip was costly.
With two on, one out and the score tied, 1-1, in the bottom of the eighth, Josh Hamilton drifted too far off second and was picked off by Cleveland reliever Joe Smith. Kole Calhoun then singled to right, a hit that would have probably scored Hamilton with the go-ahead run. The rally ended with Chris Nelson’s strikeout.
The Angels haven’t reached the playoffs since 2009, but they were in the wild-card hunt in late September of 2011 and 2012. Not since 2010, when they finished 10 games back in the division and 15 out in the wild-card race have they been so far out of contention.
“You have to look at it like you’re two games out, not 16 out,” said outfielder Mike Trout, who missed his second straight game Tuesday because of a tight right hamstring but is having another most-valuable-player-worthy season, hitting .333 with a .430 on-base percentage, .574 slugging, 21 homers and 78 RBIs.
“You have to have that mentality that this game counts. That’s how I play every game. If everyone lays everything on the line and we lose, that’s one thing. But we play teams in the race too, so you can take every game with meaning. It’s tough, but I love the adrenaline rush of the competition. I want to keep playing.”
Injuries and execution have been problems for the Angels, but effort has not.
“Our guys are playing as hard as they can possibly play,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’re seeing guys hustling, diving for balls in the infield and outfield -- you’re seeing the effort we need. These guys know every time we take the field, it’s to win a game.
"They’re taking this as hard as anybody.”
Ace Jered Weaver played on Angels teams that won three straight division titles from 2007-2009 and lost a six-game AL championship series to the New York Yankees in 2009, so it feels strange for the right-hander to be playing for pride.
“Obviously, we didn’t play up to expectations this year, but we still have a job to do,” Weaver said. “We’re trying to stay positive, go out there and battle and play the game with love and respect.”
The Angels were poised to win Tuesday when Hamilton led off the 10th with a single, Trumbo walked and Calhoun beat out a sacrifice bunt for a single to load the bases with no outs.
But Indians right-hander Matt Albers struck out Nelson for the first out, left-hander Rich Hill got Hank Conger to line out softly to third, and right-hander Bryan Shaw struck out Grant Green to end the inning.