ANAHEIM – It will come as no consolation to Mike Trout, of course, but there is precedent for this, for even the best players to stumble when they first step on the October stage. Willie Mays had two hits in his first 19 postseason at-bats in the 1951 World Series. Ted Williams was 5-for-25 with five strikeouts in the 1946 Series, his only playoff appearance. In baseball, greatness doesn’t necessarily show up every game, it makes itself evident over time. The problem is, Trout and the Angels might not have much time left.
They are one game way from elimination after their 4-1, 11-inning loss to the increasingly confident Kansas City Royals, who broke a 1-1 tie with Eric Hosmer’s two-run homer in the 11th at Angels Stadium on Friday night. The Royals can sweep the best-of-five AL Division series when it moves to KC on Sunday, largely because the LA fans have made more noise with their infernal Thunder Stix than Trout and the rest of the normally potent lineup have made with their bats: The Angels led the majors with 757 runs in the regular season. In this series, they have three.
Trout’s 0 for 4 performance in Game 2 left him at 0 for 8 with a pair of walks in the series, and when he struck out swinging on a fastball from Royals closer Greg Holland with a runner on base Friday night, it summed up the frustration of the Angels’ two home games. The Royals haven’t just been getting the Angels’ big hitters out, they’ve been blowing them away. KC starter Yordano Ventura did most of the honors in Game 2, with seven innings of heat in which he allowed only five hits and one run. According to the stadium scoreboard, Ventura threw 22 pitches of 100 mph or more, including his final pitch in the seventh.
Trout wasn’t the only one who couldn’t catch up to Ventura or the KC relievers. “It’s unfair to focus on one guy,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’s definitely being pitched very tough but he’ll work his way out of it. I don’t know that there’s any one adjustment he needs to make. He just needs to get in the box and see the ball and eventually he’s going to start hitting again.”
It may be unfair to focus on Trout, but it’s also inevitable. Albert Pujols, Howie Kendrick and Josh Hamilton, normally the other big run producers in the lineup, are a combined 2 for 26 with one RBI among them in the series. But it’s Trout who is widely considered the best all-around player in the game and the likely AL MVP. He’s the one whose statistics over his first three Hall-of-Fame-caliber seasons -- including a .949 OPS and three straight seasons of leading the league in wins above replacement (WAR) -- make sabermetricians’ hearts flutter. Even over the course of just two games, it’s unusual to see him fail this often.
The Angels’ fans don’t seem to know how to react to his struggles. Pujols has been subjected to a smattering of boos and Hamilton, who missed the last month of the regular season with shoulder problems and looks like he should be on a Triple-A rehab assignment rather than in the ALDS, has been the target of louder ones. But when Trout comes up short, there is only silence.
So what’s the problem? Is it just a case of small sample size, or is Trout pressing? If he is, it would be uncharacteristic for a player who has never shown the slightest problem with nerves, but even after Game 1 he acknowledged the psychological challenge of the postseason.
“The emotions are high and you want to do so much,” he said. “That can be when you get in trouble.”
It may be something less mysterious, like good old-fashioned scouting.
“We’ve done a good job of pitching to our plan,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. That plan seems to include attacking Trout with high fastballs, which have given him trouble recently. After three seasons of searching, the rest of the league may have finally found an area of weakness in Trout’s game. According to Fangraphs.com, 29.6 percent of the pitches Trout saw in April were high fastballs, but he saw more than 40 percent in August and September. It may not be a coincidence that he hit .257 in the second half of the season and .219 over the final two weeks.
Pujols believes Trout needs to relax. “I just told him to be himself, to let his ability take over,” he said. “I’m not saying he’s pressing, but when you’re that talented, sometimes it’s best not to try so hard.”
All the Angels need is a three-game winning streak, “and we’ve done that plenty of times,” Scioscia said. True enough, but they have to get the first two of those wins in Kansas City, and on Sunday they will face the Royals’ ace, James Shields.
“Not easy, but not impossible,” said Anaheim third baseman David Freese.
Their prospects will improve greatly if they get the MVP-caliber Trout back. With the Angels out of the playoffs during his first three seasons, he spent Octobers “in the woods,” he says, a reference to his hunting. Trout is in the woods again this October, but this time he seems lost.