Angels facing fight to the finish in American League
NEW YORK -- By virtue of this year's 8-15 start, the Angels are facing a battle every day for the remainder of the season to make the playoffs -- just as it was on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Their veteran manager and rookie general manager know it."Oh absolutely, I never expected anything but," Jerry Dipoto, that first-year GM, said before his club held on for dear life to salvage the finale of a three-game series against the Yankees with a 10-8 win that wasn't decided until the final pitch. "Our start definitely created a hole. To date we've done a pretty [good] job digging our way out of it. "The fact that there are two Wild Card spots certainly enhances the chances for a lot of teams. We're among them. Our intention is to ultimately catch Texas. That's something we've been trying to do for the last two and half years." That probably won't happy this year. Instead, the expanded playoffs give the Angels a chance to live and perhaps die another day. They're playing for the right to compete in a one-game "win and in" playoff game on Oct. 5. Win and they earn a berth in an American League Division Series. Lose and they go home after 163 games. Fair or foul, that's the new rules and Angels manager Mike Scioscia was a member of the Commissioner's select 14-man committee that helped devise them. "There's no doubt, that's the goal and we're capable of reaching that goal," Scioscia said. "That's the first step and that's where our focus has to be -- on getting our foot in that door." It wasn't really supposed to turn out this way. Last winter, owner Arte Moreno spent $317.5 million in long-term contracts to sign Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson. The Angels hierarchy knew it wasn't going to be easy to unseat Texas atop the AL West. The two-time defending AL champs, who have lost back-to-back World Series to the Giants and Cardinals, retooled themselves, signing Yu Darvish to replace Wilson in the rotation and closer Joe Nathan to shore up the rear of the bullpen. The Rangers have continued to play like champions and, with 54 wins, lead the Angels by five games in the division with the second best record in the league behind the Yankees. But with the spending and a $151.3 million Angels player payroll came heightened expectations. Welcome to the world the Yankees live in every year. "There's no doubt that Arte jumped up," Scioscia said. "But that didn't change our expectations. Even among our fans we've always had high expectations. The media that follows us knows we've always had high expectations. As far as national attention goes, when you sign guys like Pujols and Wilson there's no doubt that those expectations are probably magnified. You deal with it." The Angels are starting to spend money like the Yankees, but they don't have the pedigree. They've won the World Series once since joining the AL as an expansion team in 1961 and haven't been back to the big dance during the short Moreno era. The fact is, they haven't even been to the playoffs since 2009 -- when the Yankees beat them in a six-game AL Championship Series. The Yankees have been to the playoffs every year save one since 1995, winning the World Series five times and earning seven pennants during that span. The ethos of the organization is that anything less than winning the World Series is unacceptable. They have won 27 out of 40 of them just to prove it. And all that winning started long before the family name of Steinbrenner was attached to the franchise. The Yankees possess what other teams strive to attain and the Angels tried to play them toe-to-toe, winning four of their nine games against them this season. "They're playing at a very high level," Scioscia said. "They have a very deep lineup. Their bullpen has come together, even after losing a guy like Mariano Rivera, so they present a lot of challenges. There are some really strong teams in our league and the Yankees are one of them. That's not a surprise. You knew they were going to be good." The Yankees are in a comfort zone right now with a sizable lead atop the AL East. Under the new rules, it's almost incumbent on a team to win its own division. Those rules are stacked toward the team that finishes in first place. It can take a few days off, set up first round pitching and wait for the winner of the Wild Card playoff. Even if the Angels get to that "win and in" game, most likely they will have to burn their best and healthiest starter just to win. It all adds a new dynamic to the season and certainly to the upcoming July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Dipoto doesn't expect the Angels to be active and, like many of his contemporaries, believes that mega deals will be limited. "It's tremendous for the game and it's tremendous to maintain interest in teams that at this point might have already felt out of it in the old format," Dipoto said. "But it is going to affect the way teams operate at the Trade Deadline. Conceptually there should be a lot more buyers than sellers or teams just holding the line to see where they end up at the end of the season." The best additions for the Angels, Dipoto said, would be the return of a healthy Dan Haren and slumping Ervin Santana to form. Be that as it may, it's not going to get any easier for them. The Angels head to Detroit on Monday night to open a four-game series against the Tigers and then come home for a weekend set of three against the Rangers. There are no easy opponents these days in the AL. And then it's on to August, that hot and sultry month, which will present a day-to-day battle of heretofore unmeasured proportions.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.