ANAHEIM, Calif. -- What a difference a year makes.
On July 6 of last year the Angels were already approaching untouchable in the American League West.
They led Oakland by six games and Texas by 7 1/2. Seattle was so far back it was easy to forget that Seattle was a city where baseball was played professionally.
This year, instead of an easy-breezy summer of baseball, we're in for something better, something much more interesting. With half the season gone the AL West is in for an honest, bona fide fight; the Angels leading the division but ahead of Texas by just one game after Monday night's 9-4 win at Angel Stadium.
Let's face it: By this time last year a win, a loss -- a few wins, a few losses -- hardly mattered. But Monday's game? It mattered a lot. The way things are unwinding, a bad game, a hard inning, a misplaced pitch, could well end up killing dreams. One game could spell the difference between playing for the World Series and watching it from the cold comfort of home.
This year -- hard and uncomfortable -- isn't it better? Doesn't a prolonged fight have a way of holding your interest? The Angels have long been a buttoned-down group that wins a great deal but wins with little charisma. To catch the eye, they need competition: someone to loathe, someone to fear and worry about. This year, competition isn't coming from just the Rangers, visiting Anaheim this week after sweeping Tampa Bay. With little notice, the Mariners are just 3 1/2 games behind the division's lead.
Last season, about now, the regular season began draining all discernible danger. Oakland faded. Texas collapsed. And the Angels, we know, hit-and-sprinted their way to 100 wins. By early August they were the first-place team by a half mile. September saw that lead bulge. When the playoffs came they led by 21 games.
How great. How pulse deadening.
When it was time to wake, time to rumble, at Fenway during the playoffs, the team could not rise to the challenge.
What a welcome change in 2009.
"This division, it's a whole different tone," said Michael Young, the Rangers' third baseman, just named to this year's All-Star team. "We've got a team of guys who are playing the right way, and this year, we've got pitching and defense."
He's right, although they hardly showed it Monday night. For the first time in anyone's memory the Rangers aren't simply built to win games 16-12. On Monday, players and coaches on both sides of the Angels-Rangers divide credited Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer turned Rangers president, with building a team in his take-no-guff image.
"You can just feel it from them, the mental toughness," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "They aren't going away."
Hatcher knows. His team knows. Before Monday, they had lost five of the six games they had played against Texas.
"They own us," center fielder Torii Hunter had rightly observed.
Both teams have much to be nervous about. Big questions loom. Will the Rangers' pitching remain an asset? After getting skilled outfielder Josh Hamilton back after losing him to abdominal surgery for 30 games, will Texas go on a real tear?
And can the Angels continue to heal the emotional wounds suffered with the loss of Nick Adenhart? Can they get their balky pitching straight? They lead the American League in batting average -- and they consistently poleaxed the ball Monday night -- but can they thrive much longer without consistent power? Before Monday, Texas had 120 homers. The Angels had 79, less than all but three teams in the American League.
"It can be good when things are tight like they are now," said Chone Figgins, sitting at his locker before Monday's game. "Texas playing ball the way they are, Seattle right behind them, we have to play the way (Manager Mike) Scioscia wants us: like every game is the last game. For us, with all that we've been through, the most important thing is that we are in the race."
Last year, as always, the Angels were saying all the right things -- "every game means the world" -- over and over, even when the season was half done and there was no real doubt. They fell asleep in all that easy winning -- z-z-z-z-z-z -- and they couldn't wake up.
There's no sleeping now, not with Texas and Seattle and a half season spent overcoming terrible luck. What a difference a year makes.