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SEA@LAA: Takahashi strikes out the side in the eighth

ANAHEIM -- The Angels had split the first two games against the last-place Mariners, were at home and had the impenetrable Jered Weaver on the mound against the American League's weakest offense. This was supposed to be the game that finally gave them a series win. This was supposed to be the weekend in which they gained some valuable ground in the standings.

Instead, they lost -- falling 4-1, while failing to win a series for the fifth straight time and moving eight games back of the American League West-leading Rangers.

And instead, they held a postgame meeting with one general message: As bad as they've played, seven weeks still remain and the final Wild Card spot is only two games out. They haven't given up on the division, but manager Mike Scioscia wants them to maintain that kind of perspective with seven games left on this homestand.

"We're going to be within striking distance of our goal," said Scioscia, whose club will now host an Indians team that's nine games below .500. "It's going to start tomorrow with the first pitch, and hopefully we'll build momentum. We are not far away from where we need to be if you just analyze things."

But the Angels have dropped eight of their last 11 and haven't won a series since taking two of three from the Royals on July 23-25. Since then, they've lost two of three to the Rays, split a four-game series in Texas -- while suffering a gut-wrenching, extra-innings loss on Aug. 1 -- dropped two of three in Chicago, dropped two of three in Oakland and, most recently, dropped two of three to the Mariners to open up a 10-game homestand.

On Sunday, Weaver gave up just three runs in seven innings, but his nine-win streak ended mainly because an offense that had been on a tear could do very little against Mariners lefty Jason Vargas.

Now at 60-55, the Angels are only five games above .500 for the first time since June 19. Their eight-game deficit in the standings is their largest since May 22.

"But there's a lot of baseball left, man," said first baseman Albert Pujols, whose Cardinals overcame a huge deficit to sneak in to the playoffs and ultimately win the World Series last year.

"We have a bunch of veteran guys here, and we know how baseball is. We know that it's a long season, and we know that we have a great club with a great chance to be in the playoffs -- and once you're in the playoffs, anything can happen. We're staying positive. I think that's the main thing. Nobody's walking here with their head down. We have positive energy and we can't wait to come to the ballpark and contribute each day. We just need to keep that attitude."

The frustrating part about Sunday's loss was that the Angels finally received a good outing from the only member of their rotation who's living up to his billing these days. But an offense that had led the Majors with 6.7 runs per game since July 30 couldn't back him up.

Vargas, who recently beat out Weaver to win AL Pitcher of the Month honors for July, gave up only one run in 8 1/3 innings, with the Angels going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

The bases were loaded with two outs in the third, but Howie Kendrick struck out. Erick Aybar led off the fourth with a double, but never scored. And when Torii Hunter hit a one-out single in the eighth, Pujols grounded into an inning-ending double play, making him 1-for-23 in his past six games.

"They had some balls creep in there that set them up to have big innings, but we were able to get out of it and make some big plays," said Vargas, now 13-8 with a 3.56 ERA on the year. "That double play in the eighth fired me up more than anything."

Weaver -- and pitching coach Mike Butcher, who was ejected in the first inning -- was seemingly fired up about the tight strike zone of home-plate umpire Mike Estabrook.

It was most pronounced with two outs in the sixth inning, when a close two-strike fastball to John Jaso was called a ball. Jaso eventually reached on a single and Jesus Montero hit a two-run shot, his second of the game, to give the Mariners a two-run lead that carried them the rest of the afternoon.

"I thought I made a pretty good pitch there, but it was a ball -- he called it a ball and that's where it stands," said Weaver, who said nothing critical about the strike zone postgame. "What are you going to do? There's no excuse for giving up a home run there. I made a bad pitch, and he put it where he was supposed to."

Weaver, now 15-2 with a 2.22 ERA that's still the lowest in the AL, was coming off a shutout of the A's and came in 9-0 with a 1.60 ERA since coming off the disabled list. The loss was his first since May 13, and his first at home since Sept. 3 of last season. Had he won, he would've tied Chuck Finley (1997) for the franchise record with 10 straight victories.

The victories of his team are of much greater concern right now, though.

"We're not done by any means," Weaver said. "You're not going to win every series. It just so happens that we've been struggling of late a little bit. But it's just a matter of time. It could snap tomorrow."

For the Angels' sake, it needs to happen soon.

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