10/07/09 12:01 AM EST
Early adversity a motivation for Angels
Woeful June road trip a turning point in Halos' season
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
With the American League Division Series in his crosshairs, Scioscia said he couldn't recall "one defining moment up to this point" in a season of turbulence, tragedy and triumph. But one night, from the standpoint of his team's direction, clearly stands out.
It was the aftermath of one of the Angels' worst performances of the season on June 11, an 11-1 drubbing by the Rays of Tampa Bay.
Scioscia was livid. He vented uncharacteristically with harsh words and unmistakable warnings, turning the visitors' clubhouse at Tropicana Field into the quietest room in America.
Flying cross country back home after a dismal 4-5 trip through Toronto, Detroit and Tampa Bay left their record at 29-29, it was a time for taking inventory and searching for answers within.
The two-time reigning American League West champions, still reeling emotionally from the April 9 death of pitcher Nick Adenhart, were 4 1/2 games off the Rangers' pace, tied for second with Seattle. They had won only six of their previous 15.
"That's a bad game," Scioscia said after his team seemingly sleepwalked through a 10-run thrashing by the Rays. "None of us are happy about how we went after it tonight, and we need to get better and play with a consistency.
"If guys in that room aren't going to do it, then we're going to have to look at some changes."
There were other pointed words in Scioscia's address. While the players wouldn't elaborate, Torii Hunter -- the stand-up leader -- called it "well-deserved" and said it was time for the team to start playing with passion and intelligence.
"This is probably the worst as far as defense, offense, pitching ... everything is just wrong," Hunter said. "It's very frustrating. We just need to pump ourselves up, be more aggressive.
"You never like to lose, but if you're going to lose ... lose the right way, not like that."
The most upbeat of athletes, Hunter was dead serious that night.
"We've got to turn this thing around -- now," he said.
The next 15 games on the Angels' schedule would be with National League West teams.
John Lackey and Ervin Santana had returned to a patchwork rotation, held together early by stout efforts from the likes of Dustin Moseley and Shane Loux and then by Matt Palmer. But another big blow surfaced when Kelvim Escobar was done for the season with recurring shoulder issues after one impressive start in Detroit on June 6.
"There's no magic pill of guys getting healthy, and you're there," Scioscia said that June 11 night. "It's an ongoing thing ... and we're failing miserably in many areas.
"Where there are options that come up better, we will make moves."
Scioscia's words clearly hit home.
The Angels swept three-game series from the Padres and Giants, and a win at home against the Dodgers ran the winning streak to seven. By June 27, after a win in Arizona, the Angels were in first place.
They fell back into second after the Rangers took two of three in Anaheim July 7-8, but on July 11, exactly one month after Scioscia's Florida eruption, the Angels moved into first place for keeps. Jered Weaver beat the Yankees in Anaheim, and Lackey took the measure of CC Sabathia the following day.
An offense that had been relatively quiet got very loud -- and stayed loud for months.
The Angels went 17-3 with Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero on the DL together in July. Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera emerged as forces behind catalysts Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu.
The Angels finished June averaging 5.7 runs per game, escalated to 7.1 runs per game in July and averaged 6.2 runs in August with a lineup Scioscia was comparing to the 2002 World Series champions.
The defense -- featuring three Gold Glove candidates in perennial Gold Glover Hunter, Erik Aybar at shortstop and Figgins at third -- was a constant behind a pitching staff that solidified with the Aug. 28 acquisition of Scott Kazmir from Tampa Bay.
Since the classy lefty brought his high-powered stuff to the rotation, the Angels have had the best ERA in the Majors.
The bullpen also became a plus with the starters getting deeper in games, enabling Scioscia to carve out more consistent roles for his relievers.
There was no need for venting from Scioscia the rest of the way. He actually took a different course in late September when the offense stalled, urging his athletes to relax and not try to do too much.
Taking the boss' cue again, they started banging out line drives and running the bases with aggression, finishing with wins in eight of their final nine games.
From that dark June night in Florida to the finish, the Angels were 68-36, a .654 winning percentage.
A cerebral man who knows when to react from the gut and release some emotion, Scioscia brought his team to the postseason for the sixth time in his 10 seasons.
No manager in the history of the game ever had done that before.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.