50 games.

That’s it.

All that stands between the Angels making their triumphant return to the playoffs or falling short and being forced to watch the postseason festivities on FOX and TBS for the third straight year.

As the Angels sit with a record of 59-53, just 6 games over .500 and 7 games back of the division-leading Texas Rangers, I start to wonder how the Halos got to this point, how a team that was poised to win it all consistently struggles to play at the highest level.

When I look back over the course of the season, it becomes clear that their early problems still remain.  The frustration which fans and players felt at the beginning of the season only multiplies as the summer days drag on and the possibility of a Red October begins to look less likely.

While there still may be time for Scioscia and the gang to steer this ship back on course, it always helps to look at how we got here in order to find out where we’re going.

102 Games Ago...

Things were abysmal when we first checked in with the Angels.  After a 4-6 start, the team found themselves 4 games back of the Texas Rangers as Southern CA and the rest of the nation tried to figure out what was happening in Anaheim.

Staff ace Jered Weaver combined with newly-acquired lefty C.J. Wilson to go 4-0 with 1.78 ERA in their first 5 starts of 2012 while the offense ranked 2nd in the AL in team average (.270).  Overall, the team was hitting the ball, but they failed to do so with runners in scoring position: averaging 6 runners left on base per game through the first 10 games of the season.

And then there was the rest of the pitching staff... 

Dan Haren, Ervin Santana, and Jerome Williams combined to go 0-4 with a 10.52 ERA in their first 5 starts, while the bullpen gave up 12 extra base hits, 16 runs, and went 0-for-2 in save opportunities.

42 Games Ago...

Things were looking good for the Halos!

The team had improved their record to a respectable 38-32 – including a Major League best 32-12 over the previous 50 games – but had only managed to shave 1 game off of the Rangers’ AL West lead.

Still, fans were happy.

The trade for relief pitcher Ernesto Frieri solidified the fledgling bullpen while Pujols started to look like the franchise player the Angels had hoped for when they signed him.

And let’s not forget the emergence of rookie phenom Mike Trout who teamed up with Mark Trumbo to create a dynamic offensive force that carried the team through its best stretch of the season.

While problems persisted in the starting rotation, the Angels were confident in their core 3 (Weaver, Haren, and Wilson) and felt they still had time to address the back-end of the rotation before the trade deadline.

Today...

And address the rotation, they did.

On July 27, 2012 the Angels traded Double-A pitchers Ariel Pena and John Hellweg along with top prospect Jean Segura to the Milwaukee Brewers for 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke.

And everything was perfect, right?  Wrong.

In his first 3 appearances for the Angels, Greinke is 0-1 with a 5.68 ERA, allowing 12 runs on 23 hits through just 19 innings of play.  His control has left something to be desired as the 28-year-old’s strikeout to walk ratio sits at 15:8 to start his Halo career.

His last start was possibly the most troubling.  While facing the Oakland A’s on Wednesday afternoon, Greinke needed 103 pitches to get through just 5 innings.  When all was said and done, he had given up 4 runs on 6 hits while walking 5 and striking out just 3.  While a debatable call by the umpiring crew may have soiled Greinke’s previous start against Chicago last week, the veteran right-hander had no excuse this time around as even he referred to his performance as “the worst day of control” in his major league career.

Greinke’s outing was less-than-complemented by the continued struggles of the Angels bullpen.

On what could have been a season-defining road trip, the bullpen fell into a downward spiral that only seemed to worsen as the days went on.

Over the 10 game span, the Angels bullpen made 9 appearances while combining for a 1-5 record with an ERA of 10.54.  To put things into perspective: that’s 41 hits, 34 runs, 11 walks, and 11 homeruns over just 27.1 innings, including 5 blown saves in 7 opportunities (bringing their season total to an AL-leading 17 blown saves). 

The equilibrium that had been reached with the addition of Frieri seemed to be just as easily effected by the news of Scott Downs and Jordan Walden being sent to the DL.  Suddenly, what had looked like a solid relief corps began showing its age and vulnerability as veterans LaTroy Hawkins, Hisanori Takahashi, and Jason Isringhausen were continuously beaten around in the late innings.

This past road trip also showed us a little something about the Angels offense.

Much like the first 10 games of the season, this last stretch of games brought to light the importance of situational hitting.  The bats have been hot.  There’s no denying that.  The team as a whole hit an impressive .298 with 16 doubles, 23 homeruns, and 70 runs scored while away from the Big A on this most recent road trip.  However, much like after the first 10 games of the season, the Angels found themselves with just a 4-6 record to show for it. 

While the bullpen played its part in relinquishing leads and the starting rotation (excluding Weaver) did little to help their cause, the fact of the matter is that the Angels continue to struggle with runners in scoring position: hitting just .256 on the season.  While they did hit a respectable .292 with RISP over the course of the road trip, they still managed to leave 78 men on base.  That’s an average of almost 2 more players LOB per game than we saw during the beginning of the season.  And much like the beginning of the season, the Angels find themselves struggling to win games.

Now, I know what you’re thinking…

“You’re crazy, Matt!  The Angels averaged 7 runs per game on the road trip!”

Yeah, and a whole lotta good that did them.

Despite scoring a season high 15 runs in the first game of the series against the Rangers, the Halos ended the road trip having been outscored by their opponents 72-70 while leaving an average of over 7 runners on base.  And in those 7 games when the Angels left 7 or more runners on base, the team came away with a record of 2-5 while being outscored 52-45.  Do the math, people!  That’s a deficit of 7 runs! 7!

I’ll stop before this starts to feel any more like The Number 23.

You get the point.  Runners left on base will always come back to bite you in the ass.  Just as badly as an unreliable bullpen.  Just as badly as a starting rotation filled with holes.

The non-waiver trade deadline has come and gone, and the chance of the Angels picking up any significant pitching help off of waivers seems slim.  Unless there’s another shining star hidden somewhere in their farm system – think Francisco Rodriguez in 2002 – the team will have to work with what they have.  The return of Downs and Walden will surely help, but I think maybe it’s time for a shake-up.  Maybe Santana gets sent to the bullpen, or the Angels call up someone like Brad Mills or Jeremy Berg from AAA Salt Lake.

The rotation will get back on track.  They’re too good not to.  Weaver is having a Cy Young caliber season, and you can’t keep down competitors like Greinke, Wilson, and Haren.  No matter how hard you try.  And you really only need 3-4 starting pitchers in the playoffs.

But the Angels have to make it to the playoffs first.

And, right now, at 7 games back in the AL West and 1 game back of the wild card, the Halos are on the outside looking in.

Stranded.

Kinda like all of those runners left on base.