September 29, 2014

Who knew?

Angel fans are a spoiled bunch.  I have often said that 2002 changed everything.  Prior to that monumental occasion, we were pretty used to not rooting for a franchise that didn’t make the post season in consecutive years.  We had sort of a happy yet mediocre existence as a fan base.

When the Angels emerged as World Champions in 2002 – we got a taste of what it was like to be on top.  Then Arte Moreno bought the franchise and we enjoyed unprecedented success through 2009. Although we didn’t get back to the World Series – we were relevant and contenders year in and year out.

We got spoiled.  We started to have unrealistic expectations and we began to gripe at every little thing.  It was almost like the guy who lives a mundane life and then one day wins the lottery.  He lives high on the hog for a period of time and then one day – it’s all gone.  He squanders his good fortune and is left wondering what happened as he longs for the “fat” years.

The last four years have been frustrating.  Mind you, it wasn’t Cub- fan-base-frustrating, but it was frustrating never-the-less.  How could a franchise with the kind of resources the Angels’ had not continue to be successful?  We focused on blaming the manager, the players, the GM, the Rally Monkey, the marine layer, the umpires and anyone or anything else we could point a finger at.

We argued with each other.  We took sides… those for Mike Scioscia and those against.  One day we applauded signings like Albert Pujols and the next we moaned about them being albatross contracts. 

We became our own reality T.V. show, full of drama and irrational behavior and we couldn’t manage to look away.

And then 2014 arrived.

For many; gone were the lofty expectations.  Cynicism had set in.  No way could this team win with this starting rotation. Skaggs, Santiago?  Really? Some would say that Weaver was no longer an “ace” and who knew what we would get out of Garrett Richards.  Most were thankful that C.J. Wilson was on board because he could be the anchor….

Oh how this team would miss Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo.  You just don’t trade away that kind of speed and defense (Bourjos) and 40 homer guys don’t grow on trees (Trumbo).  Why didn’t this team sign Jason Vargas or Matt Garza?

We focused on how the team would start the season; after all, this had been a point of contention in recent seasons… with the team getting off to poor starts and never being able to recover.  We put Scioscia and GM Jerry Dipoto under a microscope. This was it; if they didn’t get it done – surely Arte Moreno would have their heads.

Opening day couldn’t get here soon enough and then… Bam!  The Seattle Mariners came into Anaheim and swept the Angels.  Panic set in and Angel fans invaded call-in shows and message boards to voice their displeasure.  “Here we go again” they thought. 

As the apologists emerged – the disgruntled were ready.  Don’t tell us “it’s early” again.  “We’ve heard that before” they’d exclaim.  And thus the 2014 season was born.

On April 11 the Angels moved to 5-5 after Howie Kendrick had a walk-off hit by pitch to win a game against the New York Mets.  For the next several games the team would hover around .500 . They end April one game above .500 at 14-13.  Yes, it was an improvement over the past few seasons, but the team did not give most fans a reason to believe just yet.

On May 13, 2014 the Angels would move two games above .500 for the first time all year and begin their rocky climb upwards.  It would mark the first victory of the year for Matt Shoemaker and little did we know it was a sign of things to come.  Shoemaker had out pitched Cliff Lee of the Phillies that day.  He would follow up that outing with victories over the likes of David Price, Yu Darvish, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Hellickson, and Hisashi Iwakuma over the course of the season.

Meanwhile, Garrett Richards was raising eyebrows.  He would end May with a respectable 3.65 ERA, but would then put the league on notice that he had arrived by lowering his ERA to 2.61 by the time he was injured.  Analysts everywhere were putting him in the Cy Young conversation as he put up impressive numbers. 

Meanwhile the team began to show signs of promise.  By May 29 the team had fought its way to 7 games above .500 at 30-23.  They would then level off to a certain degree and panic among the fans would raise its ugly head yet again.  Many just refused to believe this team was good enough and they had good reason for it…

The Angels ventured into Oakland for a huge four game series.  Trailing the A’s by 1.5 games this was the team’s chance to make a statement.  Instead – they would leave the Bay area with their tails between their legs having been swept in four games while being outscored 33-13.  It was horrific.  It was the worst case scenario.  We had every reason to believe this was going to be yet another season of disappointment.

They headed off to Houston and the struggles continued as they dropped 2 of 3.  It looked like the team was ready to fade into oblivion.  The team was 5.5 games behind Oakland and hovering at 31-28.  Being 3 games above .500 was hardly going to get it done.

And then a funny thing happened on their way down into the abyss… they put together a little five game winning streak.  They would sweep the White Sox and win the first two at home against Oakland which would include a walk-off win in 14 innings behind a Collin Cowgill homerun.  Collin Who?  Exactly.  This team would get contributions from names like C.J. Cron, Efren Navarro, Cowgill, Cory Rasmus and others who were virtually unknown to everyone except maybe their immediate families.

Were the Angels finally on their way?  Would this be the turning point of the season? Um, no.

Unfortunately, it was one step forward and two steps back for a while.  The Angels would even put together a six game winning streak in June and another five game winning streak from July 3rd to July 7.  All well and good, but it wasn’t enough as they were still 3.5 back after that little run.

Little did we know that the roller-coaster was about to end and the team would start to put it all-together from there on out. The signs of greatness would not be obvious, but they would begin to percolate for sure.

It would all begin with an 8-7 win over the Blue Jays on the last game of a three game series in Toronto.  It was significant in that it was Albert Pujols that put the team up 8-7 with a two-run homerun in the 7th inning.  It wasn’t something Angel fans were accustomed to seeing (Pujols coming up big late in a game) in the last couple seasons. 

From there, momentum would begin to build with a four game sweep of the Rangers in Texas.  The Angels were now 1.5 games behind Oakland on July 13.

Even though the Angels were playing well (except for a horrific home stand against the Dodgers and Red Sox, where the Angels would lose 5 of 7) – Oakland was doing the same and the Angels could not get any closer than a 2.5 back by August 13 despite being rising up to be 21 games above .500. 

When the Angels hit the road on August 15, they were just a game back.  The A’s were in the midst of a five-game losing streak and the Angels would win 6 out of 7 in Texas and Boston. 

The Angels would finally pull even with Oakland on August 16 with a 5-4 win in Arlington behind Shoemaker and they would never relinquish the top spot in the AL West the rest of the way.  Not even losing the first two of three in Oakland August 22 and 23 would derail the team.

As successful as that road trip was (the team went 7-3) – it was marred by the loss of Garrett Richards on August 20.  Most in and around baseball believed the injury would be too much for the Angels to overcome.  It was harsh and Angel fans everywhere found themselves with their heads in their hands in dis-belief.

It was like being punched in the stomach.  Our best pitcher (statistically) was done.  Hope seemed to evaporate into thin air.

Oh, but this is baseball and it’s a beautiful game.  Just when you think you can predict what will happen next – baseball does what she always does and surprises us all.  The team revealed its character and they kept their focus.  The rest would be history. There would be no pity parties.  No “woe is me;” none of that.

Hope would be fulfilled and prayer would be answered.

The rise of the Angels and the demise of the A’s (boy that sounds good) really came into focus when the Angels swept the A’s in four games August 28 through August 31 to go up by 5 games.  The final game of that series had Shoemaker going 7 scoreless innings with 7 K’s, while giving up just 5 hits and no walks.  Oh yes, “Shoe” was giving opponents a reason to “fear the beard.”

That series was the defining moment in the season.  As a fan it was extremely gratifying to see the Angels step up and finally make a statement.  Did I say, finally?  Well, it was about time!  I will freely admit I felt great joy in seeing the A’s totally demoralized. 

Going into that series, most hoped for at least a split which would ensure the Angels remaining in first place after-the-fact.  What we really, really wanted was total domination and a statement that the AL West was ours to win or lose. 

What we got was a boost of adrenaline and a huge shot of confidence.  The swagger was all the way back and it was time for the A’s fans to panic and start pointing fingers.  As I tuned into MLB Network radio and listened to A’s fans calling in to complain about the “light wave” the lack of an A’s offense and countless other tidbits, I couldn’t help but smile.  It felt good; real good.

There were moments prior to that series when it felt like the Angels would never catch the A’s no matter how well they played because the A’s seemed equal to the task.  It looked like we fans would have to settle for a wild-card berth and we wondered if it would be against the likes of Felix Hernandez, James Shields or Max Scherzer.

Thankfully, things changed.  The team overcame adversity.  Their offense found its way and their pitching; especially their bullpen became a strength.  There were different heroes every game and the players rallied around one another.  It was beautiful to watch.

So here we are…  Man it’s great to be back.  No dreading a long winter and wishing for spring just yet. 

We enter the post-season with the probable M.V.P in Mike Trout, and a combination of swagger and talent that allowed the team to come from behind to win games time after time.  You could say the Rally Monkey really earned his bananas this year.

Thursday – October 2, 2014, Jered Weaver will take the mound and I couldn’t be happier. There isn’t anyone, I would rather see representing the Angels in that game.  He may not throw the hardest and he may not get the respect and recognition he deserves, but make no mistake about it – Jered Weaver is THE Man.  I love watching him pitch and I have full confidence in his ability to compete.  It’s easy for me to get emotional about Jered because I feel like he’s one of us.  He’s all ours and he embodies the spirit of this team.

This is what it’s all about.  I have tried very hard to appreciate every victory in this season.  I have tried not to be anxious along the way and worry about the things that are totally out of my control as a fan. 

I have tried to savor every special moment and I am ready.  I believe in this team and I have come to love the cast of characters that make up this ball club.  I do not know what the future holds, but I’m all in.

Many said this team didn’t have the pitching to compete and yet, here they are.

Some claimed Jered Weaver was no longer an “ace” – 18 wins later, he’s our game 1 starter.

I said numerous times (mostly privately) that Howie Kendrick wasn’t clutch – and yet – he’s produced in big ways out of the cleanup spot while Josh Hamilton tries to recover from various injuries.

I once labeled Erick Aybar “Gilligan” because of his knucklehead like antics and yet, he’s had a remarkable season and impact on the team.  I have come to appreciate his hustle and baseball IQ.  I love the way he makes things happen and I recognize his leadership qualities.

I continue to hope for Josh Hamilton’s healthy return, still believing he can have a tremendous impact on the team’s success.  I want Hamilton to be a part of this story for all the right reasons and pray he has a chance to do exactly that.

Many have noticed the smile on Albert Pujols’ face and enjoy the idea that he is having fun playing baseball.  There’s something about great players who look like they’re enjoying the game that makes us happy.  Torii Hunter got it right and it appears that Pujols has found that joy as well.

I refuse to take Mike Trout for granted and fully realize we are blessed to watch this young man do things on a baseball field that no human being should be able to do.  I wince when he strikes out as often as he does – but I know we are watching an amazing athlete doing unbelievable things. 

We embrace Kole Calhoun as a fan favorite.  We love players who play the game the right way and Calhoun is our champion.  We know that he is coveted by other fan bases and to that we say… neener, neener, neener.

We have much to appreciate and be thankful for and I’ve only touched the surface here today.  Most of all, I am thankful Arte Moreno had the wisdom and fortitude to keep Mike Scioscia as this team’s manager.  In the face of the dark days of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 – Moreno remained steadfast in his commitment to the man best suited to lead this team.  I absolutely love the fact that Scioscia will have his hand at the wheel for this postseason.

I look forward to seeing a stadium colored in red and full of my Angel brothers and sisters.  I feel fortunate that Cheryl and I will be able to soak it all in.  It’s time folks.  It’s time to come together and do our part as fans; to be loud and to give our support whole-heartedly. 

Are you ready? 

Let’s do this. 

September 18, 2014

Soaking it all in

Winning is hard.  It’s really hard and I try not to forget that.  This helps me appreciate and savor every Angel victory just a little bit more.

Last night, as Cheryl and I stood behind the Angels dug-out while the players poured onto the field in a joyous celebration after clinching the 2014 American League West pennant, I couldn’t help but feel like it was all happening too fast.  I wanted to slow the moment down and soak it all in, but before I knew it – it was over.  Just like that.

We watched.  We cheered.  We slapped hands with Hank Conger and we snapped photos left and right.  We smiled. We laughed.  We savored.

The past 34 games were a blur. When your team is rolling, time goes by quickly unlike when they’re losing and the days drag on forever.

It all started after a miserable home series with the Dodgers and the Red Sox – where the Angels not only lost – they had their stadium over-run by opposing fans.  It was ugly. 

Then August 12, 2014 arrived and the Angels began the day 4 games behind the Oakland A’s.  The mountain that stood before the team looked enormous.  Four games felt like forty games.  Would they ever put it together? 

Fast forward to yesterday and the Angels go from 4 games down on August 12 to clinching the American League West going up 12 games on September 17.  The Angels would go 27-7 over that span and in the process blow past the competition like a locomotive.  It was impressive.  It was even breathtaking. 

As the Angels began to engage in an actual pennant race – the anxiety level of a great many Angel fans began to escalate.  As the team started to just roll over opponents in devastating fashion, baseball became incredibly fun.  Every game raised the level of expectation and every onslaught of offense gave fans unbelievable confidence.  It was no longer a question of “could they do it?”  It became, “Oh my goodness, they’re going to do this.”

I don’t know about the rest of Angel nation, but I was anticipating a month of anxiety and a dog-fight to the end.  Instead, the A’s rolled over and the Angels rolled on past them.  The Angels had become the big dogs and they were sticking their head out the truck window as the team blazed a trail down the highway.

When the team clinched the pennant last night – we all got to exhale a bit.  It felt good.  It felt unbelievably good to be back in the post-season.

So here we are.  Ten games left in the regular season and a post-season that beckons us.  Yes, the anxiety is about to ramp back up because things are about to get intense.  This is what it’s all about. 

Embrace the moment Angel fans.  This is a special time.  Take a deep breath and get ready for one heck of a ride.  The journey isn’t over and we still have memories to create.  We are blessed to have this opportunity to experience the post-season yet again.  And man, it’s great to be back.