ANAHEIM, California — After six months of steady play capped by a stellar September, the Los Angeles Angels earned the best record in baseball and their first playoff trip in five years.
And then that trip lasted only four days.
Once they've recovered from an unceremonious AL Division Series sweep at the smoking-hot hands of the Kansas City Royals, the Angels must figure out what they can salvage from a 98-win regular season and a brutally swift postseason exit.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia succinctly summed up his 15th season and the merciless nature of October: "(The Angels) played hard all season, and we had a rough three games."
And the Angels' high-priced hitters had the worst games of all for a team that scored only six runs in 31 postseason innings.
Josh Hamilton was booed repeatedly by Angels fans when he returned for the postseason after sitting out most of September with various upper-body injuries. The $125 million left fielder with three years left on his contract went a miserable 0 for 13 against the Royals.
"We won a lot of ballgames, but in the playoffs, the slate is wiped clean," Hamilton said. "I don't think we played poorly."
Until the last 10 days, the AL West champions were an uncommonly resilient ballclub. Even after losing starting pitchers Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs to season-ending injuries in August while playing in one of baseball's best divisions, the Angels hadn't lost more than four straight games all year — before they dropped the final three games of the regular season and their only three playoff games.
"You don't go in with any badge saying you won the most games, and you're certainly not going to get any points for that going into the playoffs," Scioscia said. "We did a lot of things well during the series. We just didn't finish some games off. Those guys got some big hits, and they beat us. But you have to get your foot in the door. We know how tough it is to get your foot in the door."
Whether the Angels can keep that foot in the door is the question of the offseason.
With their first playoff berth since 2009, the Angels finally accomplished something worthy of the enormous expectations brought on by their hefty payroll. That won't be much comfort while owner Arte Moreno watches two teams with a fraction of that financial investment playing for a World Series berth this weekend.
Moreno's urgency has a price beyond those big checks. Los Angeles has signed Pujols, Hamilton and Trout to contracts worth more than a combined $500 million, but the Angels also parted ways with several top prospects and first-round draft picks in the past few years while trying to win now.
So the Angels are likely to return next season with Trout and much the same core of well-compensated players mostly in their 30s, supplemented by what's considered one of the majors' thinnest farm systems. It worked well this season, but it's hardly the intuitive way to win.
Yet the Angels also have plenty of promising pieces. Two of the best young starters in baseball emerged from their system this season in Richards and 16-game winner Matt Shoemaker, while the Angels' bullpen became a force after a few canny in-season moves by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
And though he wasn't impressive last week, Trout is still the best player in baseball at just 23 years old. The franchise will be built around Trout for the foreseeable future, a blueprint that pretty much any team would love to have.
Pujols, who still has seven years left on his $240 million contract, spent the entire summer angrily dismissing suggestions that anything except the postseason held any importance to Los Angeles. When the Angels flopped in the playoffs, Pujols already was looking ahead to next October.
"We've got too many veteran guys here," he said. "I think we can bounce back. It's not going to be the last postseason we're going to be together as a group."
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