HOUSTON — Consider the plight of the poor Houston Astros. The reigning champions have gone 18-10 since the All-Star break. With José Altuve and Yordan Álvarez both back from injury, they’re averaging an AL-leading six runs scored. With Justin Verlander reacquired at the trade deadline, the rotation has been reinforced.
And yet, they’ve been unable to gain ground in the American League West. They came out of the break two games behind the Texas Rangers and four games ahead of a Seattle Mariners team clamoring to unseat them in the wild-card standings. A month later, they’re two and a half back of the Rangers, and the Mariners, still four back of the Astros, have climbed within a game and a half game of the final wild-card berth. The Astros, after six straight seasons of steamrolling to at least an ALCS appearance, now find themselves in a division rife with contenders in a league that also encompasses the heavy-hitting AL East, where even the last place team has a winning record.
It was in this ecosystem that the Los Angeles Angels — owners of an AL West fourth-place 45-46 record through the first half— decided to push all their chips in on this year.
They’ve gone 14-14 since the break. Nine of those losses have come after opting to add at the deadline. Indeed, between the All-Star break and the end of July, the Angels’ odds of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs, nearly doubled from 10.8% to 19.5%. Two weeks later, in the middle of a road trip that takes them through the two Texas teams atop the standings, they’re down to 1.6%.
The Angels are a special case. Their goal is the same as every other team — to play meaningful baseball down the stretch, to make the playoffs, to do something memorable once they get there — but underneath that is a cause for desperation matched only by an apparent inability to do anything about it. For nine years, they’ve been the team that needs to get Mike Trout back to the postseason. Six years ago, when Shohei Ohtani picked the Angels above, to some degree or another, 29 other suitors, that imperative was heightened. The Angels’ maddening run of mediocrity is not merely a disappointment, it’s almost an industry crisis. Baseball is not a star-driven sport, but sports is a star-driven business. During Trout and Ohtani’s tenure as teammates they’ve made a combined eight All-Star appearances, won five Silver Sluggers, one Rookie of the Year award, and soon-to-be three MVPs. They’ve also never played on a team that finished the season with a winning record.
This year arrived with extra urgency. After the season, Ohtani will become a free agent. The expectation is that, because the Angels can’t win, he will leave. They need to contend this year because it could be their last best chance for a while to do so, and because it is their only chance to retain baseball’s most enigmatic unicorn.
The Angels never seriously considered trading Ohtani. You could argue the chance to watch him finish out the regular season with the team was enough of a justification, and their hot start to the second half made it simple to not just stay the course but sacrifice some future value in service of Going For It with gusto. The plan was always to contend, a crowded wild-card field and public hand-wringing about the possibility of losing Ohtani for “nothing” couldn’t convince them otherwise when they were so close in the standings with so much season left to play.
The chances of it backfiring were high before the hindsight kicked in. Not because the Angels are cursed or incompetent or because cynicism is inherently smarter. The point of sports is to try to win, and sometimes that means even when the odds are stacked against you. And yet, each loss stacked up since the deadline has made the hope look a little more far-fetched, the possibility of wasting Ohtani’s best season yet seems a little starker.
And so the Angels embarked on a six-game road trip against the Astros and Rangers at an even .500 with 46 games remaining in the season.
“There’s a lot of baseball, a lot of baseball to be played,” Angels general manager Perry Minasian told reporters before the first game in Houston. “We’re going to put our best foot forward. I still believe in this team, there are a lot of good players here.”
Less than 48 hours later, the Angels had given up 22 runs in two games and scored just six. Ohtani’s homer-less streak had swelled to a season-high eight games. The playoff odds had plummeted to just about 1%. And Ohtani, who has been the Angels’ best starting pitcher in a season when his offensive production has generally outpaced his pitching, had told the team that he needed to give his arm a break.
In addition to everything else, Ohtani has been remarkably reliable and resilient this year. He’s appeared in more games than any other Angels player as a designated hitter and made the most starts on the mound. (Sometimes, of course, doing both on the same day.) He has earned the team’s trust and the right to some rest. On Sunday, the Angels announced that they would skip his next start.
Before the final game of the series, Minasian told Yahoo Sports he still believed they had time to turn it around.
When, though, would that time run out?
“I don’t know,” Minasian said. “We need to play better. Playing how we played out of the trade deadline is not going to get us to where we want to go, that’s for sure. Hopefully it starts today.”
The Angels beat the Astros 2-1 on Sunday, forestalling the death knell of a sweep. Ohtani hit the decisive home run — 110 mph, 448 feet, his AL-leading 41st of the season, so there could be no doubt. But the problem remains that he cannot always be the deciding factor. The Angels head to Arlington 6.5 games back of the final wild-card spot.
And with just 43 games to go, even the wins represent a waning of the season. Odds are, it’s already too late.