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OC Register: Healing Angels look to make steep climb toward playoffs

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ANAHEIM — After enduring one of the toughest weeks that likely any of their players have endured, the Angels return to action Friday following a badly needed four-day break.

It’s not going to be any easier.

As time passes, slowly relieving the grief felt from the tragic loss of Tyler Skaggs, they will also be facing the increasingly difficult task of ending the franchise’s four-year playoff drought.

The first part of that job is simply having the emotional strength to perform at the highest level every day, even when they’ll face daily reminders of a loss more important than any on the field.

If last week is any indication, the Angels seem prepared to put their grief aside for three hours a day. After losing Skaggs, the Angels split six games on the road against the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros, teams ahead of them in the standings. They had a chance to win four of six, but blew a five-run lead Sunday.

“With what’s happened around here, watching everybody come together, watching the men in here pull for one another and be there for one another has been pretty special,” Kole Calhoun said.

Jonathan Lucroy, who suffered a broken nose and a concussion in a frightening home-plate collision at the end of the week, had said earlier that he had been encouraged by watching his teammates in the aftermath of the tragedy.

“I think that we’re a tight-knit group,” Lucroy said. “Going through something like that made us tighter. I hate that is what made us tighter, but it did. It’s been a different feeling in here after that happened.”

Lucroy also has another feeling about his team: “I think we’re going to do something. I really do. I have a feeling that we’re going to sneak up on some people.”

They will start with long odds. The Angels are 45-46, in fourth place in the American League West. They trail the Astros by 12 1/2 games.

A wild card is more realistic, but still a tall order. The Tampa Bay Rays (52-39) and Cleveland Indians (50-38) are currently holding the two wild-card spots. The Angels trail the Indians, the second wild card, by 6 1/2 games, including eight games in the loss column. The Angels also need to leapfrog the Oakland A’s (50-41), Boston Red Sox (49-41) and Rangers (48-42).

“I believe we can definitely make a run,” Lucroy said. “Every team goes through struggles throughout the year. I’m hoping our biggest struggles were at the beginning of the year.”

Lucroy simply needs to look to his team from last year for proof that a turnaround is possible. Lucroy was with the A’s in 2018. They were still under .500 in mid-June, but they got hot in the second half and cruised into a wild-card spot with 97 victories.

The A’s had a patchwork starting rotation – after losing Sean Manaea to injury, their best starters were Mike Fiers, Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson – but they had a dominating bullpen and a strong lineup.

The Angels’ best shot at replicating that starts with the offense.

Even though they didn’t have Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton and Andrelton Simmons for extended stretches in the first half, the team still hit the All-Star break exactly in the middle of the league in runs.

Although they will be without surprising Tommy La Stella for much of the second half, if they can simply keep Ohtani, Upton and Simmons around Mike Trout every day, the Angels can have a dangerous offense. They also have Calhoun and David Fletcher offering solid production around that core.

“When we’re hitting on all cylinders, and we got all our guys, it’s a very long lineup,” Upton said. “It’s tough to navigate through. We put the ball in play as a team and put pressure on the defense.”

An improvement in the offense can also help the pitching. Comfortable leads can help Angels pitchers throw strikes more aggressively, which will help them be efficient with their pitch count.

“With the kind of weapons we have offensively, it should give the pitchers comfort,” Lucroy said. “I know it gives me as a catcher comfort. But it should give the pitchers some comfort that if you give up a run here or there, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to get that back. So that should hopefully help them relax and make them more efficient.”

The Angels’ top relievers, who have all performed well for most of the season, may also get a little more rest if they have comfortable leads more often. In the first game of the season the Angels played with Trout, Upton, Ohtani and Simmons in the lineup, on June 27, they scored seven runs in the first three innings and won 8-3, without using Hansel Robles, Ty Buttrey or Cam Bedrosian.

The bullpen also could get a boost from the return of Keynan Middleton, who is expected back from Tommy John surgery by the end of the month. Add Justin Anderson to that mix, and the Angels could have five solid relievers to protect leads, shortening games and spreading the workload.

A better offense and a fresher bullpen can help, but the Angels will still need the starters to pitch better.

“In order for us to compete for a playoff spot, that’s what has to happen,” Manager Brad Ausmus said. “I think we’re in a position to do it, but we’re going to have to do it. We have two and a half months to do it.”

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