Wednesday April 22nd, 2009

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Angels returned home Tuesday and found the shrine still sitting at the front of the stadium, the T-shirts still hanging untouched in the locker, all the painful reminders right where they had left them. When starting pitcher Nick Adenhart died in a car accident April 9, centerfielder Torii Hunter said that the field would serve as a sanctuary, the one place where the Angels could put aside their grief. Then the Angels went 1-5 on the road, falling to the bottom of the American League West, and it became clear that there was no easy escape.

"In this game, if you're not right mentally, you're done," Hunter said. "What's happening to us now is mental. Guys miss him. They're mourning. It's been quiet in here. It's been rough. But Nick would want us to stop whining and moaning and using him as an excuse. He'd want us to go out and play like we know how."

The Angels may be reluctant to toss out alibis, but they have several at their disposal. The season is two weeks old and they have already put four starting pitchers on the disabled list, lost their cleanup hitter for a month and buried their most acclaimed prospect. Their bullpen, typically their strongest link, has been pillaged to patch the rotation, and as a result posted an 8.31 ERA over the first 12 games, worst in the major leagues. Their offense, not much better, scored the second-fewest runs in the American League over the same span.

Without injured right fielder Vladimir Guerrero, the batting order has been reshuffled so dramatically that the No. 3 hitter Tuesday night was utility infielder Maicer Izturis, who was batting .143 and averages fewer than four home runs a season. The pitching rotation is so uncertain that earlier this week manager Mike Scioscia did not know who would start Thursday or who would start Saturday.

"Our depth chart is stretched as much as any time we've been here," Scioscia said. Former columnist Steve Bisheff, who has covered the Angels for 44 years and now writes a blog about the team for the Los Angeles Times, went a bit further: "This has been the worst two weeks in the history of the organization."

The Angels endured some dark decades, but recently, they have had a pretty enviable existence. Besides the generous owner, the steady manager, the temperate climate, the crowded stadium and the faithful yet forgiving fans, they play in a division where they are allowed a near monopoly. The Angels have won the AL West four times in the past five years, and last season, their victory lap started June 1. This time around, they are in for a struggle, but they could be better off for it. In 2008, as in 2007, as in 2004, the Angels were eliminated in the first round by the Red Sox, who had been tempered by the fierce American League East. No one is confusing the AL West for the AL East, but adversity should make the Angels a tougher out in October.

"If anything, it will make us a closer team in the long run," Hunter said. "It already has made us closer. In a month, we will be sitting here telling each other, 'You remember when we were 4-8?' "

Already, teams in the AL West have missed an opportunity to get a leg up on the Angels. The A's and the Rangers, their primary competition, are both under .500. The Mariners, in the midst of a rebuilding phase, are out to an early lead. If those three have serious designs on the division, they would be wise to take advantage of the Angels right now. Because next month Scioscia is expecting John Lackey and Ervin Santana to rejoin the rotation, and if they are at full strength, the Angels will quickly morph from vulnerable to vaunted.

In the meantime, they are just trying to find some normalcy in their clubhouse. On Tuesday afternoon, they watched Animal Planet on television and marveled at spiders spinning their webs. Catcher Jeff Mathis shot a toy gun at relief pitcher Brian Fuentes and a pellet glanced off Fuentes' backside. The room howled. The silence that Hunter referenced was momentarily broken.

Adenhart's locker sits at an edge of the Angels clubhouse, caddy corner to the one occupied by rookie reliever Kevin Jepsen, the latest pitcher sent to the disabled list. The lockers are so close that Jepsen used to complain -- albeit jokingly -- when Adenhart was changing clothes. "He was right in my face," Jepsen recalled with a laugh. The two pitchers came up through the minor leagues together and grew so tight that Jepsen's house is filled with photographs of him and Adenhart. Two days after Adenhart's death, Jepsen was asked if this small corner of the clubhouse could ever again be a place to celebrate a comeback win, a landmark performance, even a division title.

"I don't know right now," Jepsen said. "But I know that's what Nick would want."

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