ANAHEIM, Calif. — For Matt Duffy, this all felt far too familiar.
It was only 11 months ago that Duffy’s Chicago Cubs lost 11 consecutive games from late June to early July, going from nine games above .500 to a losing record. They never recovered. Now Duffy, a 31-year-old infielder, finds himself on a Los Angeles Angels team that just concluded a 14-game losing streak that torched their blistering start. As the losses mounted and the rut endured, Duffy noticed he and his Angels teammates were navigating games in a strikingly similar fashion — by placing excessive importance on early-inning situations, by acting like any deficit was too large to overcome, by playing as if the losing streak had consumed them entirely.
“That’s been weighing [on us] for about a week now, it seems,” Duffy said. “It seems like every opportunity we have to score runs, or every opportunity we have to keep them off the board — even in the fifth, I’m feeling it. It’s like a playoff game. And it’s the f—ing fifth inning right now. They might score, we’re trying to keep them off the board, but it [shouldn’t be] a pressure f—ing situation. That’s how it feels.”
Duffy spoke from his locker late Wednesday night, in the middle of an Angels clubhouse that had become eerily quiet. The strobe lights that had routinely adorned the room during postgame celebrations were static. The cowboy hat used to commemorate home runs had begun collecting dust. The noticeable good vibes these Angels carried through the season’s first six-plus weeks had vanished.
Four days earlier, on a Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, Bryce Harper’s eighth-inning grand slam seemed to send the Angels to a new low. Then Boston Red Sox starter Michael Wacha shut them out in Southern California on Monday night, triggering the surprising firing of manager Joe Maddon the following morning. Later that afternoon, Mike Trout pulled a groin muscle and the Angels lost in extra innings. The following day, the Angels, clearly grasping, turned to Nickelback and were shut out once more, extending a franchise record with their 14th consecutive loss.
In a little more than two weeks, the Angels have gone from a dominant team with aspirations of a division title to a flailing club primed to miss the postseason for the 12th time in 13 years, even at a time when the field has expanded to 12 teams.
They were off to their best 44-game start in 18 years, and now — after Shohei Ohtani‘s inspired performance in Thursday’s 5-2, streak-ending victory — they’re 2 1/2 games back of the sixth and final playoff spot in the American League.
The Angels, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau, now own the longest losing streak for a team that was at least 10 games above .500 when that streak began, surpassing a 1985 Cubs team that dropped 13 in a row. Only three teams have ever made the postseason despite a double-digit losing streak — the 2017 Los Angeles Dodgers, the 1982 Atlanta Braves and the 1951 New York Giants, none of whom dropped more than 11 straight.
And yet the regular season is only 36% complete and the Angels are still a good week away from a winning record.
It’s why Perry Minasian, a general manager for the first time, acted with such urgency when he fired Maddon.
“As poorly as we’ve played over the last few weeks, there’s an opportunity right in front of us,” Minasian said during Tuesday’s press conference introducing Phil Nevin as his interim manager. “It’s right in front of us.”
The Angels have played poorly in almost every aspect, posting the second-lowest OPS and the fourth-highest ERA in the majors during their 14-game losing streak. But they trailed by more than three runs in only about a quarter of the innings they played and lost by a single run seven times while navigating a tough slate of games that included three teams from a notoriously difficult AL East — the Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees. Duffy said he believes the team that surged through the early portion of the season is still there, waiting to be unlocked.
“Six, seven weeks is a long time to play well,” he said. “It’s not like it was a two-week spurt against the worst teams in baseball.”
Duffy’s assertion sits at the core of whether the Angels — and, thus, Ohtani and Trout, the two most exhilarating players in the sport — can finally return to the postseason after more than a decade of disappointment. Are they closer to the team that outscored opponents by a combined 53 runs through their first 44 games, or to the team that was outscored by a combined 45 runs over their next 14?
In an attempt to figure that out, we identified the five biggest reasons for their recent losing streak and determined how likely they are to continue.
The bullpen imploded
Six of the Angels’ 14 losses came in games in which they held leads in the seventh inning or later, a stretch that saw their bullpen blow a major league-leading seven saves.
Three of those blown saves came in three consecutive games against the Blue Jays. Two others came Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies, when Harper tied the score with his eighth-inning grand slam and the No. 9-hitting Bryson Stott walked it off with a three-run homer.
This had to particularly sting for Minasian, whose biggest offseason work was done on the bullpen. He brought back his closer, Raisel Iglesias, with a four-year, $58 million contract, guaranteed Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera a combined $31 million to be his setup men and spent $3.75 million to add Archie Bradley. Those four were on the mound for the vast majority of the demoralizing late damage, combining to allow 24 baserunners and record 32 outs in the six blown leads.
Will it continue? Iglesias is one of the best closers in the sport, and if you take away the three earned runs that came as a result of the grand slam he served up to Harper — during his first appearance in nine days — his ERA drops significantly. Loup, with a 1.43 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP in 89 appearances the past two years, and Tepera, with a 2.79 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP in 65 appearances last year, have proven they can get outs without throwing at high velocities. Those two have combined for a 4.40 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP in 49 games this season, but their track record suggests they should be better. Just as important for the Angels is for someone like Oliver Ortega, who does possess the big fastball, to show he’s capable of handling a high-leverage role. Regardless, this group shouldn’t be blowing leads at this rate.
Mike Trout slumped
While the Angels navigated a mystifying losing streak, Trout slumped like he never had before, going hitless in a career-high 26 at-bats.
On the morning of May 25, Trout held a .328/.436/.693 slash line and led the AL in FanGraphs wins above replacement. Over the Angels’ next 12 games, Trout slashed just .114/.204/.205, striking out 17 times and drawing only two walks.
He actually chased less often during his slump but swung and missed at a higher rate. Mostly, he said, he battled issues with his mechanics, particularly with the timing of his front foot, a common explainer when Trout hits a lull offensively. It was a bad slump, but not completely out of the ordinary in this sport, even for a player of Trout’s caliber. It just came at the worst possible time.
Will it continue? The easy answer here is: Of course not. It’s Mike Trout, for crying out loud. Trout showed he might be getting back on track Tuesday night, when he began the game with a 101 mph home run and followed with a 111 mph double. But then he winced as he sprinted out of the batter’s box and left the game because of tightness in his left groin, an ailment that kept him out of the lineup the following two nights. The Angels, as well as Trout himself, have called this a minor injury that isn’t expected to land him on the IL. But this team has shown it can ill-afford prolonged absences from its best players, given how quickly it faded when losing Trout to a calf injury over the last four months last season.
Two key hitters got hurt
Anthony Rendon, who missed the second half of last season because of hip issues, has been out since May 26 because of a tender right wrist. Six days earlier, Taylor Ward, a surprising force at the top of the lineup, slammed his head on a hard spot of the right-field fence. He missed the next four games and struggled through the following eight, only to land on the IL on June 5 because of a hamstring injury.
The Angels are hoping to have Ward back for Tuesday’s game against the Dodgers, but he’s still battling the neck stinger he suffered in that collision. Rendon has been taking grounders on the field and swinging in the batting cage, but throwing remains an issue. There’s still no timetable for his return.
With Trout, Rendon and Ward all out this past Tuesday, the Angels had 23-year-old Jo Adell hitting behind Ohtani. Duffy, who has a career .378 slugging percentage, batted in the cleanup spot, and in fifth was Juan Lagares, who didn’t have a team until the Angels picked him up on a minor league contract on May 8. The Nos. 7 to 9 hitters — Jack Mayfield, Kurt Suzuki and Tyler Wade — have posted an OPS+ well below league average since 2019. That is not a winning lineup.
Will it continue? It’s reasonable to expect Trout, Rendon and Ward will all return before the end of this month, reassembling the lineup that gave the Angels one of the sport’s most dynamic offenses through the season’s first six weeks. Here’s the thing, though: Every team gets hurt. And practically every team must overcome prolonged absences from key contributors. The Angels don’t necessarily have the depth to sustain something like that. It hasn’t been the case for a while. They need their stars to play regularly and produce, and in any game that they don’t, it often seems as if this team has little shot.
Shohei Ohtani struggled at both jobs
During the 12-game losing streak that ultimately cost Maddon his job, Ohtani allowed nine runs in nine innings over the course of two starts. Opposing hitters swung at 35 of his fastballs and whiffed on only two of them.
Offensively, over the same period, Ohtani batted .180/.333/.385 in 48 plate appearances. He still hit the ball hard, but he saw slightly fewer strikes than in the beginning weeks of the season and got a little less BABIP luck.
At times, with key offensive players out and some of the other pitchers struggling, it has felt like a repeat of 2021, when Rendon and Trout missed the entire second half and Ohtani was basically out there by himself, the only superstar in a lineup that looks way different when not at full strength. Except this time Ohtani isn’t producing quite the same.
Will it continue? Thursday’s win, when Ohtani pitched seven innings of one-run ball and hit an opposite-field home run against a red-hot Red Sox team, showed that the otherworldly ability is still there. Despite his slow start, Ohtani’s OPS+ is 21% above the league average, his ERA is 3.64 and his fWAR is 1.8. Chances are, he’ll only get better as the season progresses. But one does have to wonder about the type of burden Ohtani carries — not only as a two-way player, but as someone who barely misses games — and when that might catch up to him.
The rotation lost its way
The key to the Angels finally getting back to the postseason — and their biggest reason for optimism through the first six weeks — was the performance of their starters, particularly those outside of Ohtani. During the losing streak, however, Noah Syndergaard, Patrick Sandoval and Michael Lorenzen combined for a 6.67 ERA with only 22 strikeouts and 16 walks in 28 1/3 innings.
Syndergaard, who still isn’t throwing as hard as he used to but is getting outs, followed a bad start with a good one. Sandoval, who looked early on like a top-tier starter in the making, gave up eight runs (seven earned) in 7 2/3 innings over the course of two rough outings. And Lorenzen, who was looking like one of the more savvy offseason additions in the sport, particularly struggled against the Phillies.
Over the course of those 14 games, Angels starters averaged less than 14 outs per start — a painful reminder of the team’s rotation woes from 2016 to 2021, when only the Baltimore Orioles received fewer fWAR from their starters.
Will it continue? This one is especially difficult to pin down because of the overall uncertainty that surrounds the rotation. Sandoval and Reid Detmers have promise, but they are inexperienced. Syndergaard was an ace, but he barely pitched over the past two years because of Tommy John surgery. Ohtani is a generational talent, but he faces a challenge unlike any player has faced in more than a century. It’s hard to know who among them can be counted on for a whole season — which is, of course, what prompted Minasian to beef up the back end of the bullpen in the first place.
Now, nothing seems to be working.