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Vanishing Act
Tim Kurkjian
October 02, 1995
A hellish slump cost the Angels their division lead and possibly a spot in the playoffs
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October 02, 1995

Vanishing Act

A hellish slump cost the Angels their division lead and possibly a spot in the playoffs

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In addition, Phillips, for one, has wondered about "the fire" on his team. "I beat the——out of the helmet rack last night to try to get some intensity going," he said last Saturday. "Intensity! Intensity! We're in first place, we're trying for a playoff spot. The intensity level isn't what it should be for a first-place team. We're fighting for our lives. I'm screaming, 'Let's go! Let's go!' At this time of the year, you can't be laid back."

But the Angels are laid back and unemotional. Veterans Finley, Langston, DH Chili Davis and closer Lee Smith are quiet leaders by nature. So is Lachemann, whose calm demeanor hasn't changed since he replaced Buck Rodgers as manager in May 1994. He has thrown no tantrums during his team's collapse, and only one postgame spread (pizza) was trashed, and that was by a player. "That works for some guys, not me," Lachemann says. "No one cares more than me. But you have to be who you are."

What the Angels are is an extremely young team—five regulars have three years or less big league experience—that perhaps wasn't prepared for the rigors of a pennant race. Even last weekend, as they tumbled out of the West lead, the California players appeared loose and relaxed in the club-house, watching football on TV. "It's easy to think that way before the game, then the——gets hot," says the 36-year-old Phillips. "It takes a mentally strong person to say, 'We're still going to win [after his team falls behind].' That's not the case here now. If you're not positive, you don't have a chance. The kids don't understand the importance of all this. How can they? They've never been here. They think they're going to be in the race every year. You can't tell a kid how important this is. They can't comprehend it."

One of those kids, Eduardo Perez, energized the Angels last Friday night with a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the seventh, tying the game with the Rangers at 3-3. But in the bottom of the seventh Langston gave up an opening single to Benji Gil, who entered the game hitting .099 (nine for 91) against lefthanders. Gil went to second on a passed ball and scored on a single by Otis Nixon, who went to second when Edmonds overthrew the cutoff man. After Langston walked the next two batters, reliever Mike James came on and gave up a three-run double to Juan Gonzalez, sending Texas to an 8-3 win.

The next night the Angels took the field as a second-place team for the first time since July 1. They played like a last-place team. Finley, an All-Star this season, was behind 5-0 after 23 pitches. Three cheap singles followed by home runs by Gonzalez and Mickey Tettleton put California in another hole from which it could not escape. It marked the ninth time since Aug. 15 that the Angels were behind by at least 3-0 before the end of the first inning. "Everyone is trying so hard to pull us out of this," said California rightfielder Tim Salmon, who has done his part in hitting .371 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs since the All-Star break. "It's paralyzing us."

With each Angel loss came more reminders of the great fold-ups of all time—the 1951 Dodgers, the '64 Phillies, the '78 Red Sox. California third base coach Rick Burleson was a member of that Boston team, which had a 14-game lead over New York on July 19 and lost the division title in a one-game playoff with the Yankees. He says the feeling now is the same as it was 17 years ago. "It tears you up inside," Burleson says. "Guys on this team started asking me about it when we had a five-or six-game lead. I told them, 'If you don't win, you're going to live with it the rest of your lives.' If the '78 team had won the playoff game, we would never have been called a choke team—and there won't be a lot said about this being a choke team if we make it to the playoffs."

Heading into the last week of the season, that was a very big if.

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