A shipment of get-well cards from kids at the Children's Hospital of Orange County arrived for the ailing California Angels last Saturday morning at their hotel in Arlington, Texas. Angel utilityman Rex Hudler was nearly in tears as he distributed the heartfelt messages to his teammates in the clubhouse before that night's game against the Texas Rangers. On each card was a picture of the child who had written the accompanying words of encouragement. One little girl, Angelica, sent her card to catcher Greg Myers with the inscription, "Dear Greg. Win. Please."
The missives didn't help. The reeling Angels fell behind 5-0 after one inning en route to a 5-1 loss, their ninth in a row and 27th in their last 35 games.
In mid-August, California was 64-38, running away with the American League West title, leading the majors in runs scored and being hailed as the best team in the 35-year history of the franchise. Yet at week's end, despite a 5-0 win against the Rangers on Sunday, the Angels were two games behind the Seattle Mariners in the West and a half game behind the New York Yankees in the race for the American League wild-card playoff spot.
"I toss and turn every night thinking, What the hell is going on?" California third baseman Tony Phillips said before last Saturday's game. "I've never been part of anything like this." Neither has anyone else. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, when the Angels went from 10� games ahead in the West on Aug. 16 to a first-place tie with the Mariners on Sept. 20, it was the quickest disappearance—35 days—of a lead that large in this century. The previous fastest free fall came in 1951, when the Brooklyn Dodgers took 44 days to spit up a 10�-game lead over the New York Giants. Those teams were tied at the end of the season, and the Giants won the pennant in a playoff best remembered for Bobby Thomson's home run. California's postseason fate hinged on the outcome of its two-game series at Seattle early this week.
"We've got to be greedy. We've got to go up there and win them all," Hudler said of the impending showdown with the Mariners.
A team with a grisly postseason history, California has not played in the World Series since the franchise's inception in 1961. The Angels blew a 2-0 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the best-of-five 1982 American League Championship Series and collapsed after taking a 3-1 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the best-of-seven '86 playoffs. They also lost in their only other ALCS appearance, 3-1 to the Baltimore Orioles in '79, and came up short in runs at the West division title in '85, '89, '91 and '93, usually stumbling in the second half of the season.
But in building its huge lead this year, California seemed different. These Angels were younger, more talented and seemingly hungrier than their predecessors. They appeared determined to defy the preseason forecasts (including SI's) of a last-place finish. Then they caved in.
During their 8-27 stretch the Angels were outscored 53-14 in the first inning and were ahead in only 59 of 318 innings. As manager Marcel Lachemann said after last Saturday's defeat, "I've seen teams play as badly as we have, but I've never seen it happen to a team after it had played as veil as we had."
What happened? Most important, the California lineup lost its punch. Through Aug. 15 the Angels averaged 6.20 runs per game; over the next five weeks they averaged 3.72. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds, once a leading candidate to be the American League Most Valuable Player, went almost three weeks without an RBI during the collapse, while first baseman J.T. Snow's batting average dropped from .309 to .287. The loss of All-Star shortstop Gary DiSarcina, who tore ligaments in his left thumb on Aug. 3, was devastating. He was hitting 317, with 26 doubles, five homers and 41 RBIs, and had made only five errors in 89 games. In his absence the Angels used four different shortstops, who combined to hit 210 with five extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and sight errors in 44 games. DiSarcina returned :o the lineup last Friday night.
The pitching slumped too, with the staff ERA a whopping 6.04 during a 27-game span that concluded Sunday. Lefthanders Chuck Finley and Mark Langston, the two :op men in the rotation, have been a disappointment, going a combined 2-7 with a 7.16 ERA since Aug. 25. Neither is a stopper like the Mariners' Randy Johnson or the Yankees' Jack McDowell and David Cone—pitchers who can single-handedly overpower an opponent.