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Angels' success difficult to classify

ANAHEIM -- It was fitting that the Los Angeles Angels had that score spurring them on all game long, to no avail. The Boston Red Sox had lost their game in Baltimore by the time the Angels batted in the first inning, and the score sat out there on the right-field scoreboard for the next eight innings.

Once again, somebody opened a door and the Angels tripped at the threshold.

That's how this entire slow-motion pennant race went, all the way to the ninth inning Monday, when Neftali Feliz blew a 97 mph fastball past Howie Kendrick for the final out in the Texas Rangers' 4-3 win, eliminating the Angels from the playoff race.

It's emblematic of the new dynamic out West that the Rangers would beat the Angels with an ace tied behind their back. Texas manager Ron Washington pulled starter C.J. Wilson after two innings so he could come back and pitch Game 1 of the ALDS on Friday night. That's how the talent gap has grown between these former AL West rivals. A guy named Mark Hamburger held the Angels down for 3 2/3 innings.

If the Angels can't win one of the next two games, they'll finish 10 games behind Texas, exactly where they finished in 2010.

Things just fell apart in the final couple of weeks. On Sept. 10, the Angels had just beaten CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees 6-0 to claw to within 1.5 games of Texas. Boston was in the early stages of its meltdown. If only the Angels had played mediocre baseball the rest of the way, they'd still be fighting for the wild-card berth. They've gone 6-9 since then, and those three sub-.500 games are the difference between a tie for the wild card and elimination.

"We played so well in the second half, and just the last two weeks, during the pressure times, we folded," Torii Hunter said. "It's crazy."

So, was 2011 an unqualified disaster, a surprising uptick in the Angels' fortunes or something in between? The Angels are going to win somewhere between 86 and 88 games this season. Since they lost their best hitter, Kendrys Morales, to injury again and still managed to win 6-8 more games than last season, does that qualify as progress? If you believe that, you probably have given up on the idea of the Angels as a mover and shaker in the American League.

They don't believe that. How could they and still call themselves contenders?

"We had a team that we all felt could have played at a higher level if we had done some things earlier in the season," manager Mike Scioscia said. "This team gained momentum too late. ... By the time we did become the team that we anticipated, there was a real finite amount of games left for us to get to be where we wanted to be."

When you spend more on players than 26 other teams in baseball, staying home in October can't be viewed as success. The Angels took a halting first step toward rebuilding this year, but is starting over an option when you have a $140 million payroll?

Where did they fall short? Start with the decision-makers. Whether you believe general manager Tony Reagins is calling the shots or just executing Scioscia's plan, the Angels seemed to obliterate every good move with a worse one. They landed Dan Haren from the Arizona Diamondbacks in July 2010. Teamed with Jered Weaver and Ervin Santana, that gives the Angels perhaps the most dynamic trio of starters in the American League.

Haren has won 21 games for the Angels in eight months of pitching for them. After Haren's final start of 2011 on Monday night, Scioscia said the starter is as mentally tough as any pitcher he has ever been around.

But the back end of the Angels' rotation was in flux much of the season, in part because they traded for Scott Kazmir after the waiver deadline in 2009. They had to swallow about $14 million this year when Kazmir completed his downward spiral and had to be released.

The Alberto Callaspo trade has been a nice pickup. But it's snowed under by the colossal disaster of acquiring Vernon Wells (.218, 25 home runs) from the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Napoli (.315, 26 homers) and Juan Rivera -- a deal that, by the way, cost the Angels about $81 million.

Now they're dealing with a glut of aging outfielders, with Wells' salary tugging at them as they wade into the talent pool this winter.

After action came inaction. The Angels were two games behind Texas at the July 31 trade deadline. The Rangers acquired two of the best relievers on the market, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. The Angels did nothing.

Some of the things that went wrong simply went wrong. The bullpen was a mess in the opening series of the season and never recovered. Only the Blue Jays in the AL had a lower save percentage than the Angels' 61 percent. In the majors, only the Washington Nationals blew more saves than the Angels' 25.

Fernando Rodney lost touch with the strike zone. Some young relievers couldn't cut it. Jordan Walden, 23, got thrown into a role he might not have been ready for and did about as well, maybe a little better, than you would expect.

All of it -- the raw youth, the lack of depth -- came to a head with that definitive meltdown Sunday, when Walden coughed up four runs to the anemic Oakland A's to effectively knock the Angels out of the race.

If not for some hopeful signs, 2011 might have been just as drab as 2010. The Angels managed to lock up Weaver through 2016 at a highly reasonable five-year, $85 million extension last month, meaning they can build around their big three for the next two seasons.

Young players proved to be better than most scouts and publications had pegged them. Mark Trumbo, who barely cracked the Angels' top 10 prospects the season before, might be the Rookie of the Year. Peter Bourjos and Walden look as if they'll be key cogs for years to come. Mike Trout got his feet wet and didn't embarrass himself, though he arrived at an age when most prospects are hoping to reach Double-A. Hank Conger might be the everyday catcher next season.

But, for now, there's just the lingering bitterness of getting into a race only to trip over your own feet with the finish line so close.

"There are a lot of mixed emotions right now," Scioscia said. "I think the overwhelming one is, this stings."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.