ANAHEIM — Phil Nevin is already imagining how the Angels will look back on all of this.
“You talk about winning a World Series or getting to the playoffs, everyone talks about a defining moment,” the Angels manager said. “This may be ours. I don’t know. We got into the break with what looks like seven of our nine starters not in the lineup, we can look back at this point and say, ‘We weathered the storm. We got through it. We got hot at the right time and we’re playing in October.’”
The injury-ravaged Angels face a difficult – but not impossible – task to reach that goal.
The Angels are 45-46, in fourth place in the American League West. They are seven games behind the first-place Texas Rangers.
In the wild card standings, the Angels are fifth in the race for the third and final wild card spot, five games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. A five-game deficit with 71 to play doesn’t seem so daunting, but the fact that they also need to leapfrog the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Seattle Mariners makes it much more difficult.
If the teams ahead of them simply play at their current pace or worse, the Angels would need 90 victories to pass the Blue Jays, who are on pace for 89. That would require the Angels to go 45-26. They haven’t had a 71-game stretch with at least that many victories since 2014, the last time they made the playoffs.
And, of course, it’s likely that at least one of the teams ahead of the Angels will play better the rest of the way, raising the bar even more.
FanGraphs gives the Angels a 10.8% chance to make the playoffs. Baseball-Reference puts their chances at 4.0%.
With the odds stacked against them, each loss in one of the 16 games between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline will intensify the discussion about whether the Angels should trade Shohei Ohtani, who is set to be a free agent after the season.
General Manager Perry Minasian explained the organization’s position with regard to Ohtani as “pretty self-explanatory with where we’re at,” but that was on June 21, when the Angels were 41-34 and sitting in the third wild card spot, ahead of the Houston Astros.
Even though their playoff chances now seem remote, the Angels are still believed to prefer to hold on to Ohtani to increase their chances of re-signing him.
The best thing they could do toward that end would be to win some games, making good on Nevin’s suggestion that their current adversity might be something they reflect on in a champagne-soaked clubhouse in a few months.
A couple of players currently on the Angels’ roster own rings that offer some reason for hope.
Relievers Jacob Webb and Tucker Davidson were up and down with the 2021 Atlanta Braves, who won the World Series after losing Ronald Acuña Jr. to a midseason injury and being under .500 at the All-Star break.
“We just kept believing,” Webb said. “The biggest thing was we never gave up hope and we knew that every guy in the clubhouse, we all have a job to do. You’ve got to take care of your job and when your time comes, your opportunity comes.”
The Braves were 44-44 when they lost Acuña, who tore his ACL on July 10, just about the same position the Angels were in when Mike Trout broke his hamate bone. While Acuña was done for the season, Trout is expected back.
“Right when we lost Acuña, the whole clubhouse was kind of in shock,” said Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose last year with the Braves was in 2021. “The next day we played the Marlins and Pablo Lopez struck out the first nine of us all in a row.”
The Braves lost that final game before the All-Star break, and they caught their breath before returning in the second half. GM Alex Anthopoulos then added Joc Pederson in a trade. Freeman said that sent a message to the clubhouse.
“It’s not about who you bring in, it’s just that someone comes in,” Freeman said. “Instead of cashing in the season when we lost Acuña, (Anthopoulos) starts bringing guys in, and it’s like ‘OK, we’re still gonna go for this thing.’”
Freeman, who knows Minasian from their days together in Atlanta, said the Angels’ acquisitions of Mike Moustakas and Eduardo Escobar could be similar to the 2021 Braves’ deals for Pederson, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario.
“No one ever thought we’d be able to do what we did without Ronald, but somehow we came together as a unit real fast,” Freeman said. “I think it was pretty clear once Alex made that first Joc move, we were still going for this thing.”
The Braves, who won 88 games to overtake the New York Mets for the division title that season, were certainly the exception though.
Of the 238 teams to make the playoffs in a full season since the wild card era began in 1995 – excluding the pandemic-shortened 2020 season – just 11 made it after being under .500 at the All-Star break.
That doesn’t stop the Angels from believing they can do it. This is just the second year that there have been six available playoff spots in each league, instead of just four or five.
The Angels can also cling to the hope that they will get a boost from the return of some of their injured players. Shortstop Zach Neto, second baseman Brandon Drury and third baseman Anthony Rendon are all likely to come back shortly after the break ends. Trout and catcher Logan O’Hoppe could be back next month.
The Angels also still have most of the key pieces from a rotation that ranked sixth in the majors in ERA last season. At the moment they are 21st, suggesting significant room for improvement.
Positive spin is all the Angels have to fuel their belief that they can turn this season around.
“Just keep going, taking it one day at a time,” outfielder Mickey Moniak said. “I’ve said it a million times, even despite the injuries that we’ve sustained, we’ve got a good group in here still. I think that we’re a team that can compete with anybody.”