Rookie first baseman Mark Trumbo, who hit his 26th home run of the season,… (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images )
The night was warm, the hot dogs were hot and the opportunity was golden.
It was Labor Day evening at Angel Stadium, and the stars were lining up nicely for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. That's mostly because, earlier in the day, the Texas Rangers had lost.
For all intents and purposes, with playoff time now about 20 games away, there is one race left in the major leagues. That is the Rangers and Angels in the AL West. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox are having at it, as usual, in the AL East. But that has less meaning, other than on the hate meters of each team's fans, because both are almost assured of playoff spots — one the division champion and the other the wild card.
In the wild, wild West, somebody is going to be sitting home, watching on TV in October.
The season-long evidence has made the Angels the likely couch-sitters. The last time they were in first place alone was May 16. Their biggest lead all season was two games, and their last share of it was July 6. The Rangers reached the World Series last year before losing in the Giants' magical year. But this season, with Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young pounding away every night, the Rangers have kept right on going.
But the Angels haven't gone away. The 162-game season drones on and they keep showing up. Go figure.
The certainty that Texas would prevail was based partly on the Angels' season-long void at the plate. Or, as one old baseball scout put it years ago, the opposing pitchers weren't hitting their bats enough.
Scoring four runs was a big deal. In a three-game series.
Their only consistent hitter for much of the season was second baseman Howie Kendrick, who told reporters recently that when he hits a home run, he considers it "a mistake."
Star outfielder Torii Hunter struggled. Kendrys Morales never came back from his broken leg. Newly acquired Vernon Wells, whom the Angels are paying the equivalent of the cost of a small island in the Caribbean, still hasn't gotten his average up to .225. And a bunch of youngsters with every reason to do so hit like Mickey Mantle one night and Mickey Mouse the next.
But the veteran starting pitchers — Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana — somehow held things together and Texas never got out of view on the horizon. And that was with a bullpen backing them up that spent all season forcing the faithful in the often-packed Angel Stadium to peek through hands covering faces in fear of the late-inning inevitable.
So, when 35,497 showed up Monday night, and the Angels took the field to play the less-than-stellar Seattle Mariners, the scoreboard greeted them with the big news: Tampa Bay 5, Texas 1. An Angels win would cut the Rangers' lead to 21/2 games. A race that never felt like it was going to be one was still on.
For the Angels, the game was a setup. They had one of their aces, Haren, on the mound. The Mariners, whose playoff aspirations ended sometime around July 1, entered 21 games out of first place and sent newcomer Anthony Vasquez, a former USC pitcher, to the mound. He started with an earned-run average of 11.57.
Facing Vasquez was like shooting ducks on a pond. Mark "I will hit one out of sight every couple of nights" Trumbo crushed a two-run homer and doubled in another run. Wells hit a solo shot. A red-hot Hunter hit a triple off the center-field wall and ran the bases like an 18-year-old.
The Mariners fumbled and stumbled, made five errors and solidified their spot in the West basement.
Haren, who earlier in the season had what catcher Jeff Mathis calls "his electric stuff" so often, when he really needed it, was pretty much running on low batteries. He gave up 10 hits in six innings, but the Angels dominated from the start.
"One of those games," Haren said. "I didn't have it."
For once, he didn't need it.
Even Manager Mike Scioscia, who daily dishes out the calm and the poise and the "this is a marathon, not a sprint" philosophy, seems to be wrestling with himself to cool the enthusiasm.
"We're running the bases well, we're driving the ball well," he said afterward. "This might be the best offensively we've been since the beginning of last year.
"Trumbo is having a terrific season. He's a threat to hit the ball out of any park at any time."
It has been a season of angst for the Angels and their fans. And there may be more to come.
Before the game, Scioscia said, "These last 20 games can go, in some ways, like a flicker, or can feel like a lifetime."
Monday night, it was a flicker. Two hours 23 minutes. A 7-3 victory. Rangers' lead down to 2½.
And the hot dogs stayed hot.