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POST '87 SCRIPTS : ANGELS: It's All Turned Around and There's Nowhere to Go but Up

October 05, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

Authorities on the subject by now, the Angels may have completed their definitive work on post-playoff depression in 1987. From first place to last place, in just one whirlwind tour of the American League.

Around Anaheim, fallout from the Big One has been heavy before. After their inaugural AL West championship in 1979, the Angels all but vaporized the year after--plunging to sixth place with a 65-95 record, 32 games off the pace. And after title No. 2 in 1982, the Angels bounced back with a fifth-place standing in 1983--finishing 70-92 and 29 games out of first.

But in the continuing education of this franchise, those retreats can be chalked up and written off as painful learning experiences. Injuries waylaid the Angels from the start in 1980 and the Chicago White Sox blew away everyone in 1983.

The lesson in 1987, after last October's near-miss against the Boston Red Sox, was altogether different.

This, without question, was the Angels' master in disaster.

On Aug. 5, the Angels were four games above .500 and just a half-game behind the division-leading Minnesota Twins. Eight days later, after winning two of three games in Minnesota, the Angels were still within 2 1/2 games with a record of 59-56.

And then, obliteration.

The Angels returned to Anaheim for a 1-6 home stand and never recovered. They lost 10 of their last 17 games in August and went 7-20 in September. As tent-folding jobs go, this was one of the all-timers.

General Manager Mike Port tore into his team, first verbally and then physically. He accused the Angels of giving up and lacking heart. Within days, the Angels also lacked John Candelaria and Doug DeCinces. The house-cleaning had begun.

By late September, Manager Gene Mauch said he was "sick" and "embarrassed" by his club's performance--to the point that he was considering retirement. Mauch, however, said on Sunday he is coming back.

"The way our players have been of late, I think you have to ask yourself the question, 'Why would Gene Mauch want to come back?' " Port said.

The Angels' present condition is a mess, a shambles, a pile of rubble--take your pick.

The foundation of the team, starting pitching, has been shattered. The 1987 Angels were built around the rotation of Mike Witt, Kirk McCaskill, Don Sutton, Candelaria and Willie Fraser--and, as Mauch says, "You can write a page-and-a-half about what happened to our pitching staff."

Said Mauch: "We said at the outset of the season that we could put as many young people in the lineup as we did because of our great pitching staff. It was our great stabilizer.

"We had a youngster at second base (Mark McLemore), a youngster in right field (Devon White), a youngster in left (Jack Howell). We thought we had enough pitching to run them out there."

They say you can never have enough pitching. And the '87 Angels never even came close.

Witt won 16 games, but labored with an earned-run average of nearly 4.00. McCaskill underwent April arm surgery, returned in July and was out again by September. Candelaria, whose off-the-field problems became a summer-long headache for Port, was dispatched to the New York Mets. Sutton set a club record for most home runs allowed in a single season.

Of the five-man rotation Mauch had in April, the possibility exists that only the rookie--Fraser--will be back by next April.

Witt's three-year contract has expired, and the Angels run the risk of losing him to free agency. There remains legitimate concern over McCaskill's ability to recover from elbow surgery. And Sutton, at 42, with an 11-11 record, a 4.00-plus ERA and a tendency to tear up bullpens, doesn't figure in Port's blueprint for 1988.

"It's an open question right now," is how Port phrases Sutton's status. "Don has to make some decisions and we have to make some decisions as to the direction we want to take."

As for the rest of the rotation, Port says that "certainly, we would like to re-sign Mike Witt. There has been interest by other clubs in Willie Fraser, which tells us something about his ability. With Kirk McCaskill, there's a guarded optimism about next year.

"Those three fellows give us some starting possibilities. But, there are still some holes. We hope we can find some answers."

So desperate are the Angels for starting pitching that their big project this winter is turning long reliever Chuck Finley into a starter. Finley has yet to learn how to pitch from a full windup--and win baseball games. Personally, he was 2-7 in 1987. During all games in which Finley appeared, however, the Angels were 3-32.

It can be argued that in 1987, the Angel pitching staff was held together by the right arms of a 30-year-old rookie and a 36-year-old discard of the San Francisco Giants. Relievers DeWayne Buice and Greg Minton combined to save 27 games--a stunning total that camouflaged the lengthy absence of Donnie Moore and the deficiencies of the starting rotation.

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