WASHINGTON — Mike Trout, baseball’s surest thing, and the Los Angeles Angels are heading toward the most compelling drama of his already storied career.
The greatest player of his time will take the field at Nationals Park on Wednesday afternoon with the Angels in an unlikely spot — occupying the second wild card spot in the American League with just six weeks of season remaining.
Perhaps most notably, it’s a squad that lost Trout to a thumb injury for 40 games — and survived with playoff hopes intact and an enhanced resolve.
That can only help for what awaits: A nine-team shootout for two playoff berths.
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“Now, we’re back in the fight. At no point has anybody thought that we didn’t have what it takes in this clubhouse,” right fielder Kole Calhoun told USA TODAY Sports. “And that’s why we are where we are.”
The Angels, never more than four games over .500 this season are just 61-59 but hold a half-game lead over the Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins for the final playoff slot.
Five more teams are within 1½ to 3½ games of the Angels, whose current nine-game road trip began with a four-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners, essentially a reversal of fortunes for both clubs.
It will end with three games at Baltimore, a club just 1½ games behind the Angels.
Then, they close the season with 31 of 37 games within the AL West — which means virtually no control of their destiny in the race that matters most.
“There’s a whole new division that’s created as the season goes,” says Angels manager Mike Scioscia. “You never thought you were in a division with Kansas City. Well, here you are. You never thought you were in a division with Minnesota. Well, here you are.
“Six weeks is a lifetime in baseball. A lot can happen.”
Fair enough. But let’s suspend that thought and ponder what would happen if the season ended today: An Angels-New York Yankees wild card game.
The bi-coastal matchup would thrill TV executives, who could hype a Trout-Aaron Judge showdown (as if such matchups occur on a baseball diamond) while knowing one of them was sure to reach the AL Division Series.
And if there’s anything missing from Trout’s otherwise unimpeachable baseball resume, it’s a meaningful October chapter.
In 2014, the Angels won a major league-best 98 games but were gone so quickly from the playoffs — a three-game ALDS whitewashing by the Kansas City Royals — that it’s easy to forget Trout’s even tasted postseason baseball.
It certainly seemed 2017 would mark a third consecutive year where the New Jersey native’s autumn would be consumed largely by Philadelphia Eagles football.
After all, the Angels were just 26-27 on May 28 and hopelessly behind the Houston Astros in the AL West when Trout’s headfirst slide into second base at Marlins Park resulted in torn thumb ligaments.
While the Angels didn’t flourish without Trout, they didn’t crumble, either, winning 19 of 40 games to lurk just three games out of the second wild card.
After a 17-11 run since Trout’s July 14 return, the postseason isn’t just an abstract concept.
“We’re always thinking about how we have to get to the playoffs,” says Trout. “That’s the goal. That’s why we play.”
And another MVP award isn’t out of the question. Despite playing in 40 fewer games than most, Trout’s 5.3 Wins Above Replacement rank third among AL hitters, with Jose Altuve leading at 6.1. His 1.129 OPS will lead the league once he accumulates enough plate appearances to qualify.
If Trout plays out the season and wins a third MVP, his 117 games would equal the fewest by an MVP, joining George Brett, who batted .390 in 1980.
Yet, another Trout trophy would only tell a portion of the Angels’ improbable rise.
Their best pitcher, Parker Bridwell, was acquired in a rare April trade with the Orioles, who dumped him for cash or a player to be named. Bridwell’s gone 7-1 with a 2.88 ERA.
Their stretch-drive reinforcements will not come from a pitcher named Darvish or Gray, but rather on the wing-and-a-prayer returns of starters Andrew Heaney and Garrett Richards from serious injuries.
Heaney threw a bullpen session Tuesday as he nears a return from July 2016 Tommy John surgery. Richards, Scioscia says, should contribute by the end of the year after an irritated nerve in his biceps.
Already back: Lefty Tyler Skaggs, who missed the 2014 playoff run due to Tommy John surgery and has made three encouraging starts since missing three months with an oblique injury.
He, too, returned to an unlikely playoff race.
“I still have that fire, still have that hunger,” says Skaggs, “because I really would’ve loved to pitch in the playoffs in 2014. For me, we’re right there again.”
Calhoun cites a core of players who rolled into those playoffs, but in truth, only himself, Trout, first baseman Albert Pujols and pitchers Skaggs and Richards remain.
The rest of the roster is an intriguing mélange of veteran fill-ins, longtime organizational hands and perhaps the team’s MVP to date: Shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who has, as always, dazzled afield while posting career bests in batting average (.298) and OPS (.805).
Somehow, it’s all come together.
“The game that we play can be a selfish game,” outfielder Cameron Maybin, acquired in a winter trade from Detroit, told USA TODAY Sports. “From the moment I walked into this clubhouse, you could tell that guys genuinely cared about the next guy doing well. In a competitive situation, that gets lost sometimes.
“The difference with this team is we continue to, every day, pull for each other, believe in one another, every day keep believing that we can shock some people. It sounds corny, but it’s true.”
It doesn’t hurt that Trout resumed his robotic production since returning: A .347/.480/.602 slash line, with seven homers in 28 games.
Sure, with nine teams vying for two spots, the Angels may be holding baseball’s equivalent of a lottery ticket. And plenty must still go right for them to cash it in.
At the least, however, they can trot out baseball’s finest talent and know his significant feats are aiding a greater good.
“To see him do it day in and day out is where the magic is,” says Scioscia. “He’s got a great frame of mind for playing this game and understands the need to absorb the downside and keep playing.”
His teammates know that, too.
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