Senior Baseball Columnist

AL West tide had turned toward Texas, washing over Anaheim


It's looking like Jered Weaver and the Angels will be out of the playoffs again. (Getty Images)  
It's looking like Jered Weaver and the Angels will be out of the playoffs again. (Getty Images)  

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- They came home from Toronto at 4 a.m. Friday hanging by a thread, some of them practically needing toothpicks to keep their eyes open.

Threads and toothpicks. This time of year, it takes an entire tool chest ... plus a junk drawer.

The Angels are short in both departments, and never was that more apparent than on Friday when Texas, one of three teams to clinch a division title on one wild night of baseball, won its second consecutive AL West title.

Time was, the Angels dominated the division. But that time is past. That road now is as dusty and empty as an old California gold mining trail. The team that won this division five times in six years between 2004 and 2009 now is a few tools short, a few bricks shy of a load.

Elvis has left that building ... and moved to Arlington. The Rangers of Ron Washington, C.J. Wilson, Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and, yes, Elvis Andrus now have posted consecutive 90-win seasons for the first time ever in Texas.

And with Friday's 5-3 win over Seattle, coupled with the Angels' 3-1 loss to Oakland, the Rangers are back-to-back AL West titlists for the first time since 1998-1999. Even losing Cliff Lee to free agency and old Philadelphia money last winter couldn't slow them.

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As for the Angels, that thread they're hanging by is badly frayed, and getting worse. They remain alive in the wild-card chase but, really, in technical terms only. Following Friday's loss, they now trail Boston by 3 ½ games with just five to go.

"We have to win all of our games," manager Mike Scioscia said flatly. "Your margin for error is very fine when you're in our position."

For so much of the past decade, the Angels were adept at avoiding their current position. Painful reminders were everywhere they looked as three different clubs sprayed division title champagne Friday.

In Texas, Mike Napoli, who controversially wasn't skilled enough to catch regularly for Scioscia, was behind the plate for the Rangers' clincher. But it was at the plate where he has been so incredible for the Rangers, continually haunting the offensively challenged Angels. Not only has Napoli smashed 26 homers and compiled a 1.030 OPS for Texas, he leads the majors with a .476 on-base percentage since the All-Star break. No American League player with 200 or more plate appearances has scored that high since Jim Thome for Cleveland way back in 2002 (.481).

In Milwaukee, first-year skipper Ron Roenicke, who served as Scioscia's bench coach through last season, completed his smash-hit managerial debut by guiding the Brewers to their first division title in 29 years when Friday's 4-1 win over Florida was followed in short order by St. Louis' 5-1 loss to the Cubs.

"Ron is an incredible baseball guy who has gotten his first chance to manage and is having such a terrific season," Scioscia said late Friday night after answering questions surrounding the latest Angels' shortcomings. "We're all very happy for him and, hopefully, he'll keep it going."

In Arizona, left-hander Joe Saunders, one of four pitchers dealt for Dan Haren in July, 2010, started and worked seven innings in the Diamondbacks' NL West-clinching win over the Giants on Friday. Saunders is 12-12 with a 3.66 ERA for Arizona. The Angels failed to make the playoffs last year with Haren and are dangerously close to making it 0-for-2 with him in 2011.

"It's pretty tough to see a lot of ex-teammates go to the playoffs when you're not," a dejected Torii Hunter said, maybe reading the writing on the wall a tad prematurely, but honestly. "At the same time, what can you do? It's frustrating."

Saturday morning's pancakes will taste far better to the Angels' Alumni than to the Angels themselves. Texas now is free to worry about jockeying with Detroit and the Yankees for the best record and the right to host Friday's playoff opener. The way they tailgate in Milwaukee, Roenicke may have to step over cheese-stuffed fans sound asleep in the Miller Park parking lot as he goes to work Saturday. And Saunders can daydream about Kirk Gibson's playoff rotation.

"Every time we lose, it puts us in more of a hole and takes the pressure off the one team we're trying to catch in the wild-card," Scioscia said, grimly.

That growing hole is there because a flawed team hasn't been able to shovel quickly enough. Again, the Angels couldn't get Jered Weaver any runs. Again, the sudden and shocking defensive lapses of the past couple of weeks bit them. This time, with the score 1-1 and the infield pulled in for a play at the plate in the eighth, third baseman Maicer Izturis couldn't handle Jemile Weeks' hard chopper and Kurt Suzuki scored.

Close and Late isn't a situation for the Angels, it's a virus. The Angels' 24 blown saves this year rank second to Toronto (25) as the most in the AL, and it's tied for fourth-worst in the majors. The Angels have converted only 61 percent of their save opportunities, 28th in the majors and last in the AL.

So much for Hisanori Takahashi being the "huge splash" Angels general manager Tony Reagins said he was last winter. The Rangers smoked the Angels this summer not only on the field, but in the executive offices. Texas had a better bullpen to start the season, then GM Jon Daniels scooped up three key relievers en route to the division title: Mike Adams (Padres) and Koji Uehara (Orioles) at the July 31 trade deadline, Mike Gonzalez (Orioles) at the August 31 deadline.

Los Angeles' 12-inning loss to Toronto on Thursday was crushing enough -- the Angels' major-league leading 13th extra-innings loss of the season, hello bullpen again -- but Friday's edging by Oakland probably was the mortal wound.

Even the Rally Monkey seems to be wistfully looking toward Texas, Arizona and, yes, even Milwaukee.


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