- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was such a gradual ascent, step by methodical step, you had to watch it closely to believe in it.
For a month, teams couldn't pry a series from the Los Angeles Angels. By the All-Star break, it looked like this team had clawed back into it, just a game back. Excitement mounted. People were talking about whether one key trade could click things into place for the next couple of months, maybe lead to October baseball.
Amazingly, that was just a week ago. Now, this team is fighting to get to its feet, caught in a landslide after losing four of five out of the break. It's been sudden and merciless, making you wonder if it's worth getting all worked up for baseball's trading season this year.
What -- other than a good month -- has suggested this Angels team is one player (or even two) away from contending for the ultimate prize?
Somebody got under manager Mike Scioscia's skin before Tuesday night's 7-0 loss to the Texas Rangers pushed the Angels another game out, five now, with two games left in this pivotal series. The person suggested the Angels came out of the All-Star break playing a bit sleepily.
"There was no issue with intensity in Oakland. We just played crappy baseball and we didn't hit," Scioscia said.
He's as stoic as any manager in the game, but at times Scioscia has lost patience with this Angels offense quite visibly, certainly verbally. A little offensive chemistry will flame up here and there, then sit inert for a week or two, leaving Angels pitchers dangling and Angels fans cursing.
It would be foolish to write off a team that has reached the playoffs in six of the past nine seasons. It would be foolish to write off a series when Dan Haren and Jered Weaver are your next two starting pitchers.
But there's something relentless about this Texas Rangers team right now. That's not just a statement of the obvious -- the Rangers' 12-game winning streak. It's how they're playing. They're stifling teams with starting pitching. The offense put pressure on rookie Tyler Chatwood every inning, barely giving him time to breathe.
The Angels had their thumb in one crack while they tried to reach across and stick their finger in another hole leaking water. Texas had base runners in every inning and a runner reach at least second in five of the first six. Their No. 6 hitter, Nelson Cruz, has hit 21 home runs. The Angels' No. 5 hitter, Alberto Callaspo, has hit three.
Meanwhile, the Angels look shaky, unsteady. And that's just the front office. The day they send down their best-hitting catcher -- albeit a 23-year-old who was struggling big-time -- their No. 1 catcher makes you wonder why the Angels think they can win in the American League with only eight hitters. Jeff Mathis catches as ably as anybody out there and, if you don't believe it, you haven't listened to Scioscia prattle on about it for 15 uninterrupted minutes.
Mathis has started 47 of the Angels' 96 games, six more games than Hank Conger (now a Salt Lake Bee) and 40 more games than Bobby Wilson. Mathis is batting .191, or eight points less than his career average entering the season. He's a bench guy's favorite player, because he usually needs to be pinch-hit for late in games.
Mathis came up twice with a runner in scoring position. The first time, he failed to advance Mark Trumbo from second with nobody out by hitting a lazy pop-up to shallow center. The next time, he struck out to leave Trumbo planted at second.
Everyone seems to be debating whether the Angels are willing to spend money before the deadline. Maybe what we should be asking is whether they should. Arte Moreno has spent $25 million on Scott Kazmir and Gary Matthews Jr. He's spent about the same on Vernon Wells.
Right about now, it seems like a good idea to cut off general manager Tony Reagins' allowance. It also might be worth asking whether it's time to bring in a GM with some clout.
Oh, and by the way, one of the players Reagins traded away to land Wells, Mike Napoli, returned to Anaheim and singled, doubled, walked twice and caught an eight-inning shutout Tuesday.
The Angels might yet play well enough this year to save Reagins' job. And the way this organization operates -- with Scioscia and Moreno calling most of the shots -- it may not even be in jeopardy. But another couple losses in this series and it will be time to wonder why the Rangers can spend about $50 million less and look so much better doing it.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg