- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- Thursday's game had been over for five minutes and about half the Los Angeles Angels were still sitting on the top step of their dugout, staring out at the field. The Chicago White Sox were quietly celebrating their four-game sweep, filing past one another and slapping hands.
What were the Angels watching? Was it the quiet death of their playoff hopes? Maybe a more fundamental question was on their minds: What happened to this team?
The offensive bumblings aren't really so mysterious. When Cory Aldridge, Kevin Frandsen, Reggie Willits and Paul McAnulty are regulars in the starting rotation, you've got some holes. A couple of the Angels' stalwarts appear to be dealing with declining skill sets. An injury to slugger Kendry Morales has finally left its mark.
Talent is one thing. After Thursday's lifeless 1-0 defeat, which prompted manager Mike Scioscia to call a brief team meeting, at least one player was wondering whether some of his teammates are coasting.
"We might have some guys looking at the standings and seeing the three games off for the All-Star break and kind of getting a little loose, relaxed, don't really want to do much," Torii Hunter said. "You can see it. Hopefully it's not that. Every game, you've got to come out 100 percent ready and ready to play hard.
"That's the only way I know how to do it and I'm pretty sure a lot of guys around here do that. We might have some that thinking about that All-Star break, but not many."
When teams are hitting as poorly as the Angels are, it can appear as if they've packed the station wagon and left for vacation early. Thursday, it looked like they had taxis waiting, the meters ticking away. After sitting through four hours of combined rain delays the previous two nights, the Angels looked tired, defeated and only marginally interested as they stepped into the batter's box.
They swung early, they swung often and they made all sorts of outs, one after the next. The game took one hour and 50 minutes, in part because Ervin Santana nearly matched Danks' mastery.
Danks needed only 64 pitches to get through six innings. He hit a tiny little pocket of turbulence the next inning when Willits and Howard Kendrick bunched the Angels' only hits of the day, but it cleared up quickly with a groundout, a pop-up and another groundout. The final eight batters went down in order. Danks, by the way, had struggled mightily in his previous two starts.
The Angels managed just five runs in the four losses here. It was reminiscent of their 2005 ALCS appearance against these White Sox.
Scioscia said he touched on the topic of "give-away" at-bats in Thursday's team get-together. But the main topic was a reminder of the team's potential, he said.
"What we have to keep perspective on is that it's basically the same group of guys right here that, eight days ago, was beating some teams playing some of the best baseball in the league and maybe in baseball," Scioscia said. "It's in there for us to play at the level we need to [in order] to reach our goals."
You could debate Scioscia's last comment for a while. The first part is a fact.
On July 1, the Angels beat Texas and had taken two of three against the AL West's first-place team, pulling them to within 3.5 games of the lead. After Thursday, the Angels were drifting into that netherworld between contention and irrelevance. They entered the day 5.5 games behind Texas, which matched their largest deficit of the season.
Unless Bobby Abreu and Hideki Matsui start hitting, the margin isn't going to get much smaller. Abreu and Matsui got Thursday off, partly because Danks is left-handed, but also because they're both stuck in awful slumps. Willits and Aldridge got the starts, giving the Angels a distinctly no-hittable look. It seemed like a real possibility until Willits slapped one past diving shortstop Alexei Ramirez into left field when leading off the seventh.
The Angels could drift far enough out of contention that general manager Tony Reagins doesn't bother to make an impact trade at the deadline. He might even trade some players to trim the payroll. In other words, the Angels are at a slippery spot in their season heading into this weekend's series at Oakland. A series win would seem to be a must to keep this team fighting.
"I've been around a long time and I promise you I've seen a lot of things change in September," Hunter said. "All we've got to do is stay positive and try to figure it out."
Earlier this season, Santana blamed the Angels' struggles on the offense, saying a lack of clutch hitting was the problem. He declined to cast any blame after working eight innings of three-hit ball, allowing just one first-inning run Thursday.
"We're never giving up," Santana said. "We know we're going to start hitting well and we just have to keep pitching well. That's it. One day, we're going to get it."
Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher met in the manager's office before the game with Frandsen.
"We yelled at him a lot. We got very mad at him and I threw things at him," Scioscia joked.
Actually, Scioscia wanted to talk to Frandsen about one swing he took during Tuesday night's game that left Juan Rivera hung out on the bases. Frandsen started the season with the San Francisco Giants before being traded to the Boston Red Sox. The Angels claimed him off waivers.
"He swung too hard on a hit-and-run the other day and missed it," Scioscia said. "He came from different organizations. We wanted to make sure what he was trying to do in that situation, what he tries to do in a hit-and-run and try to get him to relax."
Quote of the day
"We've been losing games and we look like we're not even competitive. We're just out there." --Hunter.
Joel Pineiro (9-6, 3.96 ERA) might seem like an unlikely choice as a stopper, but he has emerged as one of the Angels' best options. Pineiro has won six straight starts, posting a 2.08 ERA in that span. The last time Pineiro won six in a row was in 2003, his best season in the majors.
The Angels face right-hander Vin Mazzaro (4-2, 3.81).
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com