The Angels, halo-less so far

GasHouseGorillas
This is how the Rangers must have looked to the home-opening Angel Stadium audience Thursday night . . .

When he signed his out-of-this-galaxy contract extension in the middle of last month, I concluded, “Now, if only the Angels, who aren’t exactly in the poorhouse despite deciding to make Mike Trout worth the economy of a single tropical paradise, can figure out a way to build a team baseball’s best player and the no-questions-asked best ever to wear an Angel uniform can be proud of.” I had no idea just how huge an “if” that was.

Because Trout is doing the things Trout does to pick up more or less where he left off last year, but the Angels otherwise are so much of a mess that even those covering their opponents wonder aloud why on earth any team pitches to him. Unless the answer is that they can afford to risk Trout being Trout because nobody else in an Angel uniform is going to make them pay for it.

Trout has opened the season with a 1.117 OPS, the sum of a .517 on-base percentage and a .600 slugging percentage, and a real batting average (total bases plus walks plus sacrifices divided by plate appearances) of .655. The Angels have opened their season 1-6 and sit at rock bottom in the American League West.

Yes, there are still 155 games yet to play. But this is still a team theirs and baseball’s best all-around player can’t be proud of yet. Letting the Rangers commit police brutality upon them Thursday night doesn’t fly.

As Sports Illustrated‘s Jon Tayler reminds us, cold and calm, the Angels’ offense offends. They’re missing Shohei Ohtani, still recovering from Tommy John surgery, and they’ve lost Justin Upton indefinitely. Almost everyone else not named Trout isn’t hitting, three of their starting nine make Mario Mendoza resemble Mickey Mantle, and even Albert Pujols—who’s been reduced to strictly designated hitting after knee and heel injuries enough since becoming an Angel—longs for one more spell of the days when merely mentioning his name made the opposition quake.

What the Angels need right now is what they can’t have: nine Mike Trouts in the lineup. After what Tayler describes accurately enough as “an offseason spent shopping in the bargain bin,” the Angels lack the kind of pitching that can carry such a pasta-bat lineup and reserve corps. Andrew Heaney is still on the disabled list, Shohei Ohtani won’t be able to pitch while he can hit when he returns, and a prospective Trevor Cahill ace-hood isn’t the way to make friends and win divisions. They also lack the kind of pitching out of the bullpen that can rescue anyone who gets into trouble early and often, too.

Matt Harvey learned that the hard way Thursday night. On a night when Harvey didn’t have the best of his changing repertoire, first-year Angels manager Brad Ausmus, who saw enough comparable disaster in his years managing whatever passed for the Tigers, may or may not have had any choice other than to let Harvey take what amounted to an eight-run, ten-hit beating from the Rangers in the Angels’ home opener.

 

2019-04-05 MikeTrout
Trout hitting one out Thursday night–it’s a shame the Angels can’t have nine of him in the lineup . . .

Except that nobody asked. Even if it’s not as though the Angels have the strongest bulls among the league’s pens, leaving a starter in to get rung for eight runs is terrible optics, even if one of the bulls surrendered the final two of the eight. Whenever you ask whether Harvey’s willing to take one for the team, he has Thursday night as Exhibit A.

It was too dark a night for the former Dark Knight, especially with the Angels having just about nobody beyond their $430 million dollar man who could take advantage of facing a pitcher, Edinson Volquez, who was bound not to last into the fifth inning for a second consecutive start himself. The 11-4 final score felt a lot worse than it looked for these broken-winged Angels.

And it was the opposite of the Harvey who pitched six strong surrendering a measly pair of runs against the Athletics in the second game of the season, which accounts for the only Angel win thus far, alas.

But Harvey couldn’t keep his fastball down Thursday night and couldn’t get his breaking balls where he wanted them. He plunked Shin-Soo Choo to open the game and struck out Rougned Odor swinging, but then Elvis Andrus lined a single to right and Joey Gallo, behaving much like the organised crime legend with whom he shares a name, shot one into the right center field seats.

And after Harvey followed by walking Asdrubal Cabrera, Ronald Guzman pulled one down the right field line and off the foul pole, pulling the Angels into a 5-0 hole out of which they never saw the moonlight again on the night despite Volquez doing his level best to let them back into the game.

Absurdly enough, Harvey struck out the side when he wasn’t being used for target practise, and Kole Calhoun greeted Volquez rudely enough to open the bottom of the first with a leadoff shot into the same right center field seats Gallo reached. Trout promptly beat out a base hit deep to shortstop and pasta-bat Justin Bour wrung a walk. A strikeout later, Pujols wrung a bases-loading walk, but another pasta bat, Tommy LaStella, dialed Area Code 3-6-1 to blow that threat.

Harvey shook off a leadoff single to get two strikeouts and a ground out in the second. Well, ok, this was the first time he ever pitched in Angel Stadium, and maybe the Angels can still recuperate, right? Not when Volquez breezed in order in the bottom of the second, and not when the Rangers followed a third inning-opening groundout with Guzman doubling to the right field line, and Harvey needing Trout to throw Guzman out at the plate trying to score on a followup single by Logan Forsythe.

And not when Isiah Kiner-Falefa, no known relation to a certain Hall of Famer, lined a double into the left center field gap to score Forsythe post haste and leave the score 6-1.

Trout’s throw home to nail Guzman flew at a 96 mph speed. It was faster than anything Harvey served up to the plate all night. Tempting though that might make it sound, do not get any bright ideas about having Trout pitch an inning or two.

After Calhoun looked at strike three on a full count to open the bottom of the third, Trout stepped up to the plate again and hit one over the shrubbery behind the center field fence. And after Bour flied out to center to follow, Volquez looked again like he could be had: single to right, walk, wild pitch setting up second and third, but LaStella lined out to center for the side.

A game that could have had the Angels pulling back to within two to keep things manageable with six innings to go remained a four-run deficit. And Harvey pitched his best inning of the night in the top of the fourth, shaking off a one-out single to lure Gallo into a lineout double play to end the inning. But after the Rangers hooked Volquez with two out in the bottom and Jeffrey Springs struck out Calhoun swinging, trouble loomed again.

This time Harvey was greeted with an inning opening base hit (Cabrera) before walking the followup hitter (Guzman), and his night ended mercifully if a little late. Reliever Luke Bard surrendered a prompt single to load the pads but got two straight fly outs to follow. Then he threw the wrong pitch to Choo on 1-1 and Choo lifted one to short left field. Angels left fielder Brian Goodwin, a scrap heap waiver pickup in March, misplayed the odd-hopping ball and the ball traveled back far enough to clear the bases and leave Choo on second.

2019-04-05 Matt Harvey
Harvey’s expression says everything he hoped not to have to say . . . 

Goodwin made up for the mistake only partially in the bottom of the sixth when he tagged Springs for an RBI double on which an infield throwing error allowed him to take third. A fly out later, Springs walked both Calhoun and Trout, but Bour grounded out for the side.

The bullpens kept things quiet for the most part from there, if you didn’t count Andrus’s two-run single off a struggling Cam Bedrosian in the eighth. Or, the Angels sending an unearned run home in the ninth on a weak groundout, unearned because Peter Bourjos—returned to the Angels after assorted travels, following his having been nudged out of centerfield by someone named Trout, and now a late-game insertion for Trout—beat it to first leading off after what was a swinging strikeout ended up a passed ball with Rangers catcher Falefa unable to throw him out at first.

“Quite frankly, a couple of times we were one swing of the bat away or one big hit away from being right back in the game,” Ausmus said after the massacre ended mercifully. Go ahead and say it—that’s what they all say.

But the Angels went 0-for-10 with men in scoring position Thursday night, not to mention hitting into three double plays including twice by new catcher Jonathan Lucroy, not to mention Trout never once getting to bat with anyone in scoring position. The Rangers? They went 6-for-12 with men in scoring position.

So that’s the trick with these Angels: Let Trout wreak all the mayhem he wants. Just don’t let anyone else reach base ahead of him. You don’t want the Angels’ pasta bats otherwise helping him make you look foolish.

“Nothing was really down in the zone. Everything was up,” said a crestfallen Harvey after the game. “I used the first game to start with the guys down in the zone and work up and today was everything was up. It was one of those where everything I threw they were making good contact on. So it was a rough one.” The righthander said he’d be mad at himself “for 24 hours” and then get back to work.

File this under Add Injury to Insult Dept.: Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, one of the best gloves in the game even if he, too, is something of a pasta bat, was forced out of the game with back stiffness in the third inning. Taken out as a precaution, Simmons hopes to play Friday. Ausmus calls him day-to-day.

Ohtani says he can’t wait to get back into the Angels lineup at least to swing the bat even if he can’t pitch just yet. The Angels say yes you can. Prudence about Ohtani’s health is wise even if the circumstances tell you it’d be nice if he could get back a little sooner than the likely end of this month.

Because that’s the Rangers sitting on top of the world and only a game and a half behind their fellow division-shocking Mariners, with the Angels and the defending division champion Astros opening the season with the American League West’s only pair of losing records thus far. Between them, I’m slightly more optimistic for the Astros right now.

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