As players are quick to say, baseball is a strange game.
For the Angels, who climbed out of a deep April hole in the American League standings with a spectacular run through the All-Star break only to dive at least partially back in during a 3-9 start to August, Tuesday night was a perfect example of why. This team, expected to contend for a title but currently scuffling along chasing two teams in the AL West and three for the wild card, looked a lot like that group in a 9-6 win over Cleveland at Angel Stadium.
The offense was there, courtesy of a four-run first inning, two hits each from Mike Trout and Torii Hunter, plus a home run and four RBIs from Albert Pujols. Starting pitching, described by manager Mike Scioscia before the game as the team's "heartbeat" but fluttering lately, was also improved. Zack Greinke threw six nearly flawless innings -- the only big mistake was a two-out, fourth-inning fastball to Indians CF Michael Brantley launched over the right-field wall -- before entering and escaping trouble in the seventh. He left on a high note, striking out Asdrubal Cabrera with two men on and the Indians threatening to force a struggling bullpen into the game.
While the line (7 IP, 4 ER) wasn't sterling, it was a major contrast to Greinke's past two starts and a positive sign for a team searching for consistency as the stretch run draws near.
The trick is figuring out how the Angels can look like the Angels more frequently.
"Baseball is just a crazy game. You can feel good, you can hit balls hard. Sunday [in a 6-2 loss to Seattle], we hit balls hard. [Monday,] we hit balls hard," Hunter said afterward. "It's better than what you think. You look at the numbers and, yeah, it looks bad. But we look at our team and we're like, 'Wow, why panic?' Because we know we're hitting the ball hard, it's just not our turn."
"Every day, we feel like we're good and have a chance to win," he said. "Today, everything dropped for us."
And on those days, it's easy to look good, and in the big picture it's fairly easy to follow the standard baseball mantra of neither getting too high nor too low. No one game, win or lose, tends to be unusually significant. But at some point, the math starts to change: 162 games become 100; 100 become 50; and so on. With 45 remaining, there's still no indication of whether the Angels are more the team that ransacked the American League for two months or the group bookending that run with two awful stretches.
At some point, patience has to give ground to urgency, but urgency can't force the clubhouse to freak out.
"We can't really focus on the past," Hunter said. "We've got 45 games left. I actually think 45 games is a lot. In '06, we were eight and a half games out. When I was with the Twins, we caught the Tigers on the 162nd game. We end up winning the division. We were 8.5 games out, I think 6.5 on September 1st. And we ended up catching those guys and passed them. The Cardinals last year, they went on a crazy streak and ended up winning the World Series."
On paper, that's what this group can do.
"I think it's been in this club," Scioscia said before the game. "If you look at the whole body of the season, there's no doubt we're disappointed where we are. No one has their head buried in the sand or is taking it lightly. But for stretches of the season, we played as well or better than any team in baseball. And trying to find that consistency is what our challenge is."
Consistency -- the good kind -- likely won't be enough to take the division but could be enough to get to the wild card. From there, anything is possible. But there's reason to wonder whether, for whatever reason, these Angels have it in them.
At some point, a team really is its record, however mediocre it might be. The Angels aren't there yet, but they don't have much time left to match their results to expectations and will need many nights like Tuesday to do the trick.