2002 Angels a model for how Rays can turn season around
MAY 31, 2014 2:00p ET
Early in the 2002 season, then-Anaheim Angels general manager Bill Stoneman was at a loss in his team's predicament. He saw a 3-2 start become 3-8, then 6-14 less than a month after Opening Day. One question was repeated in his mind, a curiosity that others within his franchise shared.
What can I do to help out here?
"The analysis said, 'Hey, this is a pretty good team,'" said Stoneman, who served as the Angels' general manager from 1999-2007. "We just weren't playing well as a team. But we thought we had the talent, and the guys were good guys. They were all bothered by it just as much as anybody."
Then, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon served as the Angels' bench coach as they attempted a recovery. Anaheim, in those opening weeks, had lived sustained struggle: A six-game losing streak from April 8-13, a four-game losing streak from April 20-23 and no more than two consecutive victories earned through the first 20 games.
Yet Stoneman witnessed flashes that gave him faith in a possible rise.
He saw promise in David Eckstein, a young shortstop in his second major-league season. He enjoyed the heart shown by centerfielder Darin Erstad, first baseman Scott Spiezio and second baseman Adam Kennedy. He was a believer in the mix of young talent allowed to grow alongside veterans like rightfielder Tim Salmon and leftfielder Garret Anderson.
Eventually, Stoneman's patience was rewarded. The Angels found a rhythm and finished the regular season at 99-63 on their way to winning the World Series in seven games over the San Francisco Giants.
This year, Maddon's Rays have lived a more severe slide with a 23-32 record after a loss to the Boston Red Sox on Friday at Fenway Park. They own the American League's worst mark.
Still, no matter the year or circumstance, Stoneman considers the slump-busting antidote the same.
"I always say about the teams that get into the playoffs -- and we did that year -- it's all about momentum," Stoneman told FOXSportsFlorida.com earlier this week. "And our momentum wasn't very good, and all of the sudden, it just turned around. We had guys who stayed positive. We didn't really have any negative guys around it, from (manager Mike) Scioscia to Joe and all the coaches and all of that. Players were all the same. We had a positive group, and all of the sudden, we had momentum that was working for us instead of against us."
This year, Maddon hopes momentum turns for his team soon. Recently, he mentioned the 2002 Angels as a personal example lived of a team that recovered to make a season memorable.
Still, there are differences that will make Tampa Bay's effort to repeat Anaheim's feat more difficult.
For one, the Angels found a winning identity quicker. After their 6-14 start, they won eight consecutive games from April 24-May 3 as part of a 21-3 run from April 24-May 22. They were 32-22 at the seasonâs one-third mark, only three games behind the Seattle Mariners in the American League West.
The Rays, meanwhile, have yet to find the life the Angels discovered after their lull. Because of many factors -- key rotation injuries, a sputtering offense, sometimes sloppy defense -- inconsistency has become a familiar torment for Tampa Bay. The Rays have enjoyed no longer than a four-game winning streak, and they began play Saturday 8 1/2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East.
"As we continue to work our way out of it," Maddon said recently, "I would want to believe they're going to remember what it felt like when it wasn't so good and then how it feels when it is good."
How a team transitions from the bad feelings to the good remains somewhat of a mystery even to the men, like Stoneman, who have lived the change. Momentum in baseball is an abstract concept, but when it works in a team's favor, it can mean the difference between a season that extends beyond 162 games and one that ends early.
"For Joe to apply what happened in '02 for the current Rays club, it's hard to do, because there's a momentum thing that happens," Stoneman said. "To say there's one thing that you've got to do to turn things around, there isn't one thing. You've got a group of players, you've got a manager and a coaching staff, and all of the sudden things start to happen right. And when they start to happen right, you go on a roll. Thatâs what anybody who's having a tough time has got to find. If the talent is there, and you've got the right mix of people, it's going to happen."
Maddon and others within the Rays remain confident in their mix. Time will show if they're correct.
Like the Angels then, the Rays have a capable infield comprised of veterans like third baseman Evan Longoria, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Ben Zobrist and first baseman James Loney. Like the Angels then, the Rays have a strong, experienced talent core to complement rising talents like rightfielder Wil Myers and right-hander Jake Odorizzi.
Like the Angels then, early struggle for the Rays can be recalled as a positive as long as it becomes a catalyst for change, not an identity.
"That's something that everybody in this clubhouse, I would hope, has done sometime in their career -- minor league or big leagues, just knowing that when you're at your worst, you've got to basically try to find out what it was that got you there and what it's going to take to get out of it so you don't stay it in as long," Rays utility man Sean Rodriguez said. "It can be difficult sometimes. You can't allow it to bring you down too much."
Patience in the most valuable trait to own in the grind from slump to sustained success. Stoneman and Maddon recognized as much in 2002, even when the Angels' outlook appeared bleak after 20 games.
Now, the Rays must capture that elusive momentum for themselves. Their season, their hope for playing meaningful games late once more, depends on the discovery.
"One of the things that will kill you in this game is if you don't have patience," Stoneman said. "If you don't have patience, you'll end up doing things that you regret. If you know that you've got the talent and all of that, and you're patient with it, things will turn around and work for you."