ANAHEIM, Calif. – Into this dowdy corner of baseball, where the losses come at least as often as the wins, which makes the season a moving target, Mike Trout nodded and said he was good to go. He’d missed 39 games and the Los Angeles Angels had won 19 of them, which most took as a good sign, though sometimes it seems the Angels could field seven players or 12 and still win 19 of 39 games, and therefore lose 20 of them, and so be sort of relevant without being relevant.
When they play “Smoke from a Distant Fire” during batting practice at Angel Stadium, a person tends to think of these things, that there seems to be something going on here but the details are lost in the space and the haze. So maybe there’s nothing. Could be something, though. It’s hard to tell. The Angels were done in the AL West without having played a game of the second half, and remain a few games out of the wild card, and because Mike Trout’s thumb was healing they had no one at the All-Star Game, but here he is again — back, upright, dangerous, supernatural, and relatively alone.
The list of what they Angels need approaching the trading deadline outpaces what they already have, a little detail they’d suggest will change with the returns of starting pitchers Matt Shoemaker, Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs and maybe, someday, Garrett Richards, and you’re allowed to suggest whatever you want. The highly disappointing Chicago Cubs just said screw it and offloaded a not insignificant portion of their farm system for Jose Quintana. Not to say the Angels are the Cubs, or could have scratched together anything close to the four players who just became Chicago White Sox, or have the same regard for Jose Quintana. But, again, Mike Trout is playing baseball again, and the Angels are still average to below average, and wouldn’t it be interesting to have the Angels decide they’re going to run with the other — let’s say — eight teams in the wild-card race. They’ve played three postseason games in the Mike Trout Era, have been gifted fresh bearing in the American League, and have 2 ½ months to make something of it. They’re going to have to pitch the first six innings of games, though, a fairly spotty proposition so far.
Anyway, as many have said before, Mike Trout is the best player in the game today, and it’s perhaps time the Angels start taking advantage of that today. It’ll cost money. It could clear out what’s left of their prospects. It could require some creativity. But you play the long game long enough and it becomes less of a plan than a personality trait, and one day you look up and the long game has done nothing but buy time you didn’t have.
Ahead for the Los Angeles Angels are three against Tampa Bay, two against Washington, three against Boston and three at Cleveland. Then, four days to the trading deadline, meaning in or out, and the possibility of another season gone. Or one come back to life.
Meantime, a cheer went up when Mike Trout’s name was called by the public address announcer early Friday night, but nothing delirious. Course, there weren’t many people here either. In the tedious conversations about which player is the face of the game, there remains the likelihood there both isn’t just one and there needn’t be just one.
The face of Angel Stadium is not, however, up for debate. It’s Mike Trout at the main entrance, where Gene Autry Way barges into State College Boulevard. It’s Mike Trout hanging from the light poles on the perimeter. It’s Mike Trout on the building. Mike Trout in the concourses. And Mike Trout in the lineup.
He is who they are, every bit of them. He is the reason the people come and the reason they hope. He is the shirseys they wear and the hats they wave and the posters they buy and their motivation to stay until the end. By the third inning Friday night, he’d been off the disabled list for an hour and already had a line drive single and a stolen base, this after healing faster than many figured he would, after all of 14 minor-league plate appearances. Trout had a chance to play the hero in the 10th inning but struck out on three pitchers with two runners on.
“Aw, extremely excited,” he said before the game. “It was good to be able to come to the ballpark and see your name in the lineup. … I feel one hundred percent, body-wise. Thumb feels great.”
He’d watched the All-Star Game, loved the Nelson Cruz photo, and before that watched Angels road games on television. He’d sent texts goofing on teammates to the team trainer. He’d reported to Angel Stadium with the other injured players and tried not to dwell on the fact he’d play fewer than 157 games this season for the first time in five years.
Instead, he’d resume what looked like would be his finest professional season, that could still be great, and probably will be.
The rest remains to be seen. They could get better. Or not. They could just be the distant fire, whatever that is.
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