ANAHEIM, Calif. — After a season that began with a tragedy and ended in bittersweet defeat for the Los Angeles Angels, manager Mike Scioscia was left thinking about what his team accomplished and what it left undone during perhaps his longest year in baseball.
“It’s tough to get a silver lining when you’re knocked out,” Scioscia said after the Angels’ final loss to the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the AL championship series on Sunday night. “It was a series that we had high expectations for, and we didn’t get it done.
“But I think as we reflect on this, after a couple of days, just look at all the great things that happened on the field for us, the trials and tribulations that the guys in that clubhouse went through all year is something that you hope you never have to go through in your lifetime again.”
The Angels took the long way home Monday, making a late flight back to Orange County before packing up their lockers Tuesday. Seven Angels are eligible for free agency, including ace John Lackey and slugger Vladimir Guerrero, while several others such as Gary Matthews Jr. won’t be back if any deal can be made for them.
Los Angeles had barely settled into the chase for its fifth AL West title in six seasons last April when pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a car accident allegedly caused by a drunk driver. The popular 22-year-old’s death, just a few hours after making a strong season debut, cast a pall that weighed on the team for several weeks afterward, yet ultimately became a rallying point for his saddened teammates.
The Angels celebrated with Adenhart’s jersey when they clinched their third straight division title, and several players mentioned his constant influence all the way to the ALCS.
“I know that’s what will stand out in this season — what we were able to do for Nick,” Jered Weaver said recently. “I think we’re proud of the way we came together and won the division and did some good things in the playoffs.”
The Angels won 97 games before sweeping Boston out of the division series, emphatically chasing away a persistent playoff nemesis. That strong play didn’t continue in the ALCS, where the Angels looked amateurish at times despite stretching the series to six games with two narrow wins at Angel Stadium.
After leading the majors during the regular season with a .285 batting average, the Angels hit just .236 against the Yankees, repeatedly failing to come through in key situations. After setting a club record with just 85 errors in the regular season, they made eight against New York, including two in the eighth inning of Game 6 to give insurance to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
“It’s tough for me,” said Torii Hunter, who became the Angels’ unofficial captain with his leadership during a standout season. “I’ve been battling those guys, those Yankees, for years, in Minnesota, and then come over here, same thing. So I’m used to getting beat down by those guys.”
The Angels are in for changes after evaluating their free-agent class: Guerrero, Lackey, leadoff man Chone Figgins, outfielder Bobby Abreu, veteran Robb Quinlan and pitchers Darren Oliver and Kelvim Escobar.
Lackey is likely to be the top starter on the market, and his bulldog performances in the playoffs only increased his value. He hasn’t sounded particularly sentimental about sticking with his only major league team since winning Game 7 of the World Series in 2002, and he seems almost certain to go to the highest bidder — which has rarely been the Angels in recent years, despite their consistent bids for baseball’s top free agents.
Guerrero also could depart after wrapping up his six-year contract with a gradual decline in his production, skills — and even memory, if his attempt to take first base on a three-ball count in Game 6 is any indication. The 35-year-old says he’d like to return, citing his mother’s comfort living in nearby Anaheim Hills, but he’d have to take a pay cut after getting 15 homers and 50 RBIs during his injury-plagued season.
“Right now I don’t know anything,” Guerrero said after Game 6. “Sometimes they talk to your agent, and the agent doesn’t tell you anything. … Sometimes I have to think about my mother, since she feels good being in Anaheim. Nothing is close to happening. I just have to wait for it to happen.”
Figgins also could be gone, although his 3-for-35 performance in the playoffs might drive down the offers for a usually consistent leadoff hitter.
“I hope it’s not,” Figgins said of the possibility he had just played his last game with Los Angeles. “I mean, that’s yet to be seen. I’m just trying to reflect on the good things that happened through the season and worry about that stuff later.”
The Angels are eager to re-sign Abreu after getting him late in the spring for a bargain-basement US$5 million, and the veteran seems amenable to a return.
But no matter which free agents stay and which must be replaced, Los Angeles will return a talented core. The rotation is solid with Weaver, Joe Saunders, Scott Kazmir and Ervin Santana, while a lineup can be built around breakout youngsters Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera supplementing Hunter, who’s already eager to chase the Yankees again in 2010.
“Those guys play well, and I know they’ve got all those guys locked up for 20 years,” Hunter said. “So it’s going to be a mountain to climb, trying to get past those guys.”