Another day, another blown lead.
That’s been the story of the Los Angeles Angels lately, who are 11-15 since the All-Star break after Wednesday’s 9-8 loss to the A’s and now find themselves in third place in the AL West, seven games behind the Texas Rangers.
What's more alarming is that the team now trails four teams in a wild-card race they were leading as recently as August 1st.
A disturbing trend has emerged during this post-All-Star Game malaise that has engulfed the Angels and is threatening to completely derail an otherwise promising season, and that is the bullpen’s repeated inability to hold on to leads.
Consider that when play resumed on Friday, July 13th, the Angels had the third best record in the American League, and were a mere four games behind rival Texas.
That night they were in the Bronx to take on the league-leading New York Yankees in the first of a three-game set, and everything looked great as the Angels took a 5-2 lead into the eighth inning. But set-up man Scott Downs, who relieved C.J. Wilson to begin the inning, threw a sinker to Derek Jeter that didn’t sink enough and Jeter smashed it to center field for a leadoff double.
Downs compounded that mistake by walking Curtis Granderson next to bring the potential tying run to the plate in Mark Teixeira. And tie the game he did, with a three run blast that must’ve felt like a collective punch to the stomach to the visitors.
After managing two outs and another walk, Downs was relieved by Kevin Jepsen, who gave up the go-ahead run on a single to Russell Martin.
Just like that, the Angels were down and, three outs later, out in a game they had no business losing.
Three days later in Detroit, La Troy Hawkins gave up a three-run homer of his own in the seventh inning to turn a one-run lead into a two-run deficit that eventually became another loss.
Two weeks after that the Angels, by virtue of their 8-6 record in that span—including back-to-back wins at Texas to begin a four game series—were poised to trim the Rangers’ lead to two games as they took a 10-7 lead into the bottom of the tenth courtesy of home runs by Chris Iannetta and Albert Pujols.
Alas, closer Ernesto Frieri, who had already blown the save in the previous inning, gave up a leadoff home run to Nelson Cruz and failed to record an out, and Jason Isringhausen, who replaced Frieri with two men on, fared little better. When the dust settled, the Angels bullpen had blown yet another lead and instead of being two games out of first place, they were four games out.
The following night, three relievers combined to give up six runs in another loss to Texas, wiping out any gains the team had made by winning the first two games of the series.
Will the Angels make the playoffs?
The slide continued in Chicago and later Oakland, where the Angels combined to lose four of six, with three of the four losses being charged to the bullpen.
So where does the team go from here?
Just as a series of come-from-behind victories can energize a team and convince them they are destined for special things that season, a rash of come-from-ahead losses can infect a team like a virus and bring all sorts of negative outcomes into the picture.
It’s now looking like the bullpen, which was a huge question mark heading into the season, was merely out-performing itself during the first half of the season and is now unfortunately regressing towards the mean.
If that’s the case, then the team is in serious trouble. With every starter other than Jered Weaver struggling to achieve any semblance of consistency and the trade deadline having passed, and the farm system lacking in quality major-league ready arms, the Angels are going to have to rely on duct tape and band-aids to try and hold the bullpen together long enough to get into the postseason
Can they do it? Time will tell. But with Downs on the DL, Frieri struggling and Isringhausen and Hawkins nearing 40-years-old, it better be some pretty good duct tape.