A month ago, Major League Baseball was making a big deal about its big teams in its big markets.
For the first time ever in early May, both franchises in New York and the Southland were leading their respective division — a fact MLB splashed across its television network and social media feeds.
The Yankees and Mets were rolling on one coast. The Dodgers and Angels were equally as impressive on the other. The sport’s best baseball was being played in its most populous areas. It seemed like it might last all summer.
Fast-forward a few weeks, and the situation has changed.
While the two clubs in the Big Apple continue to pace the league, the Dodgers and Angels enter a two-game Freeway Series this week in downward trajectories, each mired in the worst stretches of their young seasons.
The Angels are no longer in first place, and aren’t even particularly close, a 14-game losing streak and extended 5-20 run dropping them several games below .500 and out of the playoff picture.
The Dodgers still lead in the National League West, but only barely, clinging to a half-game lead entering Monday after losing nine of their last 13 contests.
“I just think that the urgency to do whatever it takes to win that night, on the offensive side, hasn’t been there,”
— Dave Roberts, Dodgers manager, on the team’s struggles
What once seemed likely to be a marquee showdown at Dodger Stadium this week now begins with a different feel, as both clubs try to regain a foothold and rebuild momentum in their first of two meetings this season.
“It’s baseball, you just keep fighting through it,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “That’s why we play 162 games, you’re gonna go through stretches like this.”
While the Dodgers (37-23) have battled injuries on the mound of late, most notably losing Walker Buehler to an elbow strain last weekend, problems at the plate have cost them most during their two-week slide.
Over the season’s first 45 games, the Dodgers were baseball’s most dynamic offense. They were averaging an MLB-best 5.7 runs per game. They were batting .254 as a team. They had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .771.
Since then, they’ve managed 3.5 runs per game. They are batting .234. And during their recent 2-4 trip, they were shut out twice.
The lack of performance triggered blunt comments Sunday morning from manager Dave Roberts.
“I just think that the urgency to do whatever it takes to win that night, on the offensive side, hasn’t been there,” he said.
A key factor: a lack of production from the lineup’s top two hitters.
After posting MVP-caliber numbers in May, leadoff hitter Mookie Betts is batting .204 since the start of June with one home run. Another former MVP, Freddie Freeman, has also cooled off with a .229 batting average this month.
The team has made a habit of squandering opportunities, as well, batting .191 with runners in scoring position since the start of June (the third-worst mark in MLB during that time).
“I think we can do a better job of being a little bit more aggressive and more confident,” shortstop Trea Turner said, “instead of just sitting back and waiting for it to happen.”
The Angels (29-33), meanwhile, are trying to find their bearings after a turbulent week in which manager Joe Maddon was fired last Tuesday amid their franchise-record losing streak.
The skid ended with a 5-2 win over the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, but the Angels proceed to lose two of three weekend games against the Mets (who also split a four-game series against the Dodgers on their trip) and have lost four of six games under interim manager Phil Nevin.
The swagger the Angels showed while going 24-13 and gaining a share of the American League West lead through May 15 disappeared during their brutal ensuing four-week stretch, which left them nine games behind the Houston Astros through Sunday.
Wins like Saturday night’s 11-6 pasting of the Mets, in which the Angels had 15 hits, including five homers, have helped restore some of their confidence.
“We had a rough stretch, but I think we’re getting our mojo back a little bit,” first baseman Jared Walsh said after hitting for the cycle Saturday. “When we’re clicking on all cylinders, I think we’re one of the best teams in the league.”
Injuries have stripped the Angels of several key parts over the past month, but they are expected to be whole again Tuesday when right fielder and leadoff man Taylor Ward, one of baseball’s best hitters through mid-May, is activated after missing nine games because of a mild right hamstring strain.
With Anthony Rendon returning from a right wrist injury last Friday and Mike Trout returning Saturday after missing three games because of left groin tightness, Tuesday will mark the first time since May 20 that the top four hitters in the lineup — Ward, Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Rendon — will start together.
“I’m super excited to be back with everybody,” Ward said over the weekend. “Hopefully we can get this thing rolling.”