Mike Trout's First Walk-off Homer Keeps Angels Rolling Toward Top of AL West

Jason MartinezContributor IMay 16, 2014

USA Today

A few months from now, when the Los Angeles Angels are running away with the AL West, there is a strong possibility that the confidence and swagger exuded throughout their clubhouse could be traced back to a particular come-from-behind victory that occurred on May 15.

Heading into the day with a 21-18 record and only three games behind the first-place Oakland A's, it could be said that the Angels were already playing well above expectations and capable of making a run at a playoff spot. 

But after a disappointing 84-loss season in 2013, the Angels still might have had a hard time believing that they could hang with the likes of Oakland, which won consecutive division titles in 2012 and 2013 while averaging 95 wins per season and was off to a terrific 25-16 start in 2014.

The Halos were only 8-10 at home. Star center fielder Mike Trout had been scuffling badly in the month of May. Albert Pujols had cooled down after a hot start with just three hits in his last 30 at-bats. The closer situation was unsettled with Ernesto Frieri and Joe Smith sharing duties as of late. Starting pitcher Hector Santiago was recently removed from the rotation due to ineffectiveness. 

It would've been easy for the Angels to question whether they had what it takes to remain in the playoff hunt. 

That mindset may have changed, however, when Trout broke out of a 7-for-50 slump by cracking a walk-off three-run homer to finish off a 6-5 comeback victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday. 

After Grant Balfour opened the bottom of the ninth inning by walking Hank Conger and Efren Navarro and allowing an RBI single to Collin Cowgill to cut the lead to 5-3, Rays manager Joe Maddon opted to remove his closer in favor of righty Brad Boxberger. 

While Balfour was struggling, the move was questionable, considering Trout was 0-for-6 against him lifetime with four strikeouts. Boxberger, who had never faced Trout, had allowed a run in back-to-back games, including a homer to Cleveland Indians shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, after beginning the season with nine consecutive scoreless innings. 

"You know what, I'm worried about the team," Maddon said of his reasoning behind the change, per Bill Chastain of MLB.com. "In that moment right there, based on what we've seen Boxy be able to do and that part of the order coming up. And if it had been different batters he'd walked instead of 8-9. That would have made it a little different. But 8-9 and then here comes 2-3-4. I didn't like it. I thought Boxy had a chance against these guys."

Coming into the at-bat, Trout was 0-for-3 on the day with two strikeouts to take over the major league lead from Atlanta Braves center fielder B.J. Upton. He was also hit by a pitch in his last at-bat, which may have served as extra motivation for the 22-year-old to strike back. 

The third pitch, a changeup by the 25-year-old Boxberger, was crushed into the left field stands by Trout to deliver the Halos their third consecutive victory, moving them within 2.5 games of Oakland. 

Up until now, the A's have survived despite the loss of starting pitchers Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to season-ending Tommy John surgeries. But their pitching depth has certainly taken a hit and they might not be able to maintain their success over a 162-game season. 

On the other hand, the Angels are beginning to show a surprising amount of depth that could help them overtake the A's at some point.

TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 12:  C.J. Cron #20 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is congratulated by Chris Iannetta #17 after hitting a solo home run in the eighth inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on May 12, 2014 at Rogers Centre i
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Top prospect C.J. Cron (pictured; 12-for-33, 2 HR, 3 2B) has made an impact since being promoted earlier this month. Fill-ins Grant Green (10-for-30, 2 2B) and Collin Cowgill (.865 OPS, 2 HR) are making up for the loss of key regulars.

Michael Kohn (0.93 ERA) and rookie Michael Morin (8 IP, 0 R, 5 H, BB, 7 K) are filling integral roles in the bullpen. More relief help could be on the way with prospects R.J. Alvarez (19 IP, 0 R, 8 H, 5 BB, 28 K) and Cam Bedrosian (12 IP, 2 ER, 4 H, 5 BB, 22 K) waiting in the wings down in Double-A.

Players who have been inconsistent in the past are performing steadily in 2014. Howie Kendrick (.815 OPS) is having a terrific season. The catching combination of Chris Iannetta (.753 OPS) and Conger (.939 OPS) are producing. Garrett Richards (2.42 ERA in eight starts) is having a breakout year out of the rotation.

They're also getting healthier. Kole Calhoun could return as early as Tuesday, per Pedro Moura of The Orange County Register. Josh Hamilton, who appeared to be back to form after a disappointing 2013 season, could return from a thumb injury by the end of the month. Lefty reliever Sean Burnett is on a rehab assignment. 

Beware, American League. Trout's walk-off blast may have awakened a sleeping giant. The Angels are a talented squad with a growing amount of confidence. They know they can overcome a big deficit. The momentum will only become stronger as they get healthier. And once they catch and surpass the A's, the extra swagger in their step will be obvious.