Another year, ejection, and autographed ball

Jesse Winker

Jesse Winker (27) triggering a bench-clearing brawl after taking a leadoff pitch on the can in the second Sunday . . .

When pondering how to attract and keep today’s youth bound to baseball, I’m pretty sure a bench-clearing brawl depriving a particular young fan from southern California of seeing a favourite player all game long isn’t exactly what we should have had in mind. It’s hard enough being a Reds fan anywhere these days without that.

Last year, a little California girl named Abigail Courtney got to see her first live major league game when her beloved Reds hit town to play the Padres. She really wanted to see her personal favourite, first baseman (and future Hall of Famer) Joey Votto. Except that Votto got tossed from the outset after arguing a nebulous pitch call.

The girl’s heartbreak went viral, enough so that it reached Votto himself. He promptly sent her a ball that he signed, “I am sorry that I didn’t play the entire game. Joey Votto.” The next day, Votto granted Abigail a personal audience when the Reds blew her family to tickets for that game.

Abigail’s Reds rooting includes sticking with players after they move on, as several did when the Reds decided to push the plunger on 2022 before the lockout-threatened season even began. And there the Courtneys were in Angel Stadium Sunday afternoon, where Abigail wanted to see two of her now-former Reds heroes, Mariners left fielder Jesse Winker and infielder Eugenio Suárez.

If the little girl has been taught anything about Hall of Fame catcher/malaproprietor Yogi Berra, don’t be shocked if it includes one of the most fabled Berraisms flashing in neon before her pretty eyes in the second inning: It’s déjà vu all over again.

She either didn’t know or didn’t quite comprehend that there might be a little bad blood between the Angels and the Mariners after the Angels’ future Hall of Famer Mike Trout was almost decapitated in the ninth inning Saturday night. She didn’t know Angels opener Andrew Wantz was going to send a return message or two, zipping one past Julio Rodriguez’s head in the top of the first before drilling Winker on the right butt to open the top of the second.

She certainly didn’t know Winker would slip the umpires trying to restrain him and charge the Angels’ dugout on the third base side of the ballpark, luring the rest of the Mariners to pour over for a rumble against the dugout rail after the Angels—who looked to have been chirping at the Mariners after Winker took it on the cheek—came out to defend themselves.

Nor could she know yet that the umpires’ crew chief Adrian Johnson would tell a pool reporter, “I’m not aware of the incident with Trout from last night. You’re talking about the pitch that went over his head. That was nothing for us to issue warnings today. What happened today was a guy got hit. We had warnings in.”

A week earlier, while the Angels took four of five from the Mariners in Seattle, Angels pitcher (and yet another former Red) Michael Lorenzen reeled in horror after a pitch coned former Angel Justin Upton upside the head. Post-game, Lorenzen thundered over the inconsistent baseballs that pitchers were having numerous issues gripping properly including the ones they couldn’t grip well enough to control.

Abigail Courtney

. . . meant a second broken heart over an early ejection of a current or former Reds favourite for Abigail Courtney in slighty over a year . . .

Maybe for the Mariners the Upton splat meant beware. Maybe they didn’t necessarily accept Lorenzen’s post-game commentary as sincere. Maybe both sides pitching inside and tight this weekend was a little bit of mutual messaging. But just how Johnson could have figured that that didn’t mean buzzing Trout’s tower in the ninth Saturday merited pre-game warnings Sunday escapes.

A pre-game warning would have dispatched Wantz post-haste after he’d zipped Rodriguez’s head. It also would have knocked into the proverbial cocked hat any suspicion that Angels manager Phil Nevin elected to go with an opener just to have him take one or two for the team and send the Mariners messages without costing himself too heavily.

Considering the Angels’ usual wounding flaw of inconsistent-to-insufferable pitching rearing its head yet again this season—and contributing well enough to that fourteen-game losing streak that deflated their earlier-season success—Nevin was playing with matches if that was really his plan.

Abigail Courtney knew none of that going in. All she knew in the moment in the top of the second was that here she was at the ballpark to watch a couple of her favourite former Reds (we presume Votto remains her number one man in Cincinnati) and one of them got a shot in the ass, triggered one of the wildest brawls of the season, if not the wildest, then got thrown out of the game.

So did Winker’s fellow Mariners Rodriguez and J.P. Crawford, not to mention Mariners manager Scott Servais. So were Nevin and Angels Wantz, Raisel Iglesias, and Ryan Tepera. (Iglesias had a message of his own to send after his ejection, throwing a large tub of sunflower seed bags out towars the third base line in protest. Brilliant.)

Winker didn’t exactly go gently into that good not-so-grey afternoon. Before he disappeared into the Mariners clubhouse, he flipped the double bird to a section of the seats behind the dugout.

“The only thing I’m gonna apologize for is flipping the fans off,” the left fielder said after the game. “That’s it . . . They pay their hard-earned money to come and see a game, and they didn’t deserve that, so I apologize to the fans, especially the women and children.”

Lucky for Abigail that her mother is a psychologist by profession. “One of the first things I said was, ‘Honey, everybody’s fighting, but they’re all going to be OK’,” Kristin Courtney told Athletic writer Stephen J. Nesbitt. “‘Nobody’s going to get seriously injured. But Jesse’s not going to be playing anymore today’. So, there were more tears.

Abigail Courtney

. . . and, a second apologetically-autographed baseball to Abigail from a chastened player.

“She has a sensitive heart, and she really cares about baseball,” the lady continued. “She feels for everybody, and I know she was disappointed for herself because she’s been waiting to see Jesse. I kept telling her, ‘I don’t think Eugenio is going to get thrown out. I think he’ll be OK. You can cheer for Eugenio’.”

Concurrently, someone made Winker aware of Abigail’s second such broken heart in a year and eight days. And he did something about it.

When Votto got tossed in San Diego last year, he sent her the ball and made a point of meeting her before the next day’s game. When Winker was made aware Sunday, before the game ended in a 2-1 Angels win, he sent Abigail a ball he signed, “Sorry I was ejected! I hope to see you at another game soon.”

If Votto’s precedent is any indication, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished. Before his ejection broke Abigail’s heart in San Diego, Votto was in something of a 41-game slump. After redeeming himself with her the following day, he went nuts enough to hit 19 home runs with a .674 slugging percentage over the following 52 games.

Winker could use a little of that kind of mojo. Even more than he could have used the pizza an Arkansas fan named Sofie Dill sent to him in the clubhouse. (When Winker texted her thanks, she texted back, “Thank you for being awesome, Jesse! There’s a ton of people on Twitter who love you right now man.”)

The bad news: Winker has a respectable .353 on-base percentage thus far this season, but he’s slugging 153 points below his career percentage. The next time the Mariners might have a chance to see Abigail will be the Fourth of July, when they visit the Padres on her home turf.

I suspect it’s very safe to say that, while she might appreciate the balls she got from Votto and Winker after their ejections broke her heart, Abigail would much rather watch them play baseball when she gets to the ballpark. Autographed baseballs aren’t half as much fun as baseballs diving for line drive hits or flying for home runs.

The Angels gave Skaggs a past-heaven home farewell

2019-07-12 MikeTrout

Wearing Tyler Skaggs’s name and number, Mike Trout finishes running out the two-run bomb he launched to start the Angels’ memorial massacre Friday night.

The stricken finally returned home to start the season’s second half. And the way they did it didn’t just defy belief, it drove belief almost as far out of Angel Stadium Friday night as Mike Trout’s two-run homer flew out in the bottom of the first.

The Angels paid one more tribute to the unexpectedly late Tyler Skaggs before the home audience Friday night. On the night before Skaggs would have turned 28. With a combined no-hitter and a sinking of the Mariners all the way to Davy Jones’s Locker.

It only began with a 45-second pre-game moment of silence in Skaggs’ memory, the time in honour of his uniform number. The Angels one and all wore Skaggs’ number 45 for the moment and for the game. Some dare call that tempting the baseball demigods, others dare call it divine inspiration.

After the Angels put the 13-0 no-no squarely into the bank, nobody really knew what to call it. Assuming God was available for comment, even He Himself might have been lost for words, and His words are usually the best words any side of heaven.

“Tyler’s birthday is 7/13. Tomorrow,” said Trout following the game. “They’d tell you to rewrite this script to make it more believable if you turned this in.” Which is pretty astute coming from a guy who claimed to be speechless over what he and his mates just did.

“Absolutely incredible,” tweeted Astros pitcher Justin Verlander. “Meant to be.”

The Mariners joined the Angels, showing shiploads of class, in lining up the baselines from the plate as a Skaggs jersey was placed behind the Angel Stadium pitcher’s mound in a frame.

Skaggs’ widow, Carli, his mother Debbie, his stepfather Dan, and his stepbrother Garrett, made for the mound accompanied by Angels pitcher Andrew Heaney. Then Debbie wound up and threw a ceremonial first pitch, before embracing Heaney and Mike Trout, the Angels’ all-everything center fielder suddenly emergent as the team’s no questions asked leader in the immediate aftermath of Skaggs’ unexpected death.

And those genuinely touching moments were almost nothing compared to what happened during the actual game, played in front of a likeness of Skaggs and a circular memorial displaying number 45 large on the rear end of Trout’s office, the center field fence.

How many times can you say the Angels paid their departed pitcher the most unexpectedly appropriate tribute of all—a game in which two pitchers, Taylor Cole (two innings) and Felix Pena (seven innings) combined to surrender no hits, only one walk, and see not a single Mariner reach on an error?

How often can you say Trout himself—who wept unashamedly last week in Texas, trying to express what his friend Skaggs meant to himself and to their team—accounted admirably for almost exactly half the Angels’ commemorative destruction?

Say it as often as you like even if you’re not an Angel fan. Because seldom if ever has a team rent by in-season tragedy responded like this when finally getting to play for the home audience after their lost teammate’s death on the road, showing him the love with their fans.

2019-07-12 LosAngelesAngels

First, they lined up for 45 seconds of silence in Skaggs’ memory. Then, they performed a combined no-hitter and a blowout. Who says baseball’s lost its capacity for surreality?

And even less often does it begin the way it did in the bottom of the first, after Cole retired the Mariners in order on a strikeout, a fly out, and a ground out—dropping seven on Mariners starter Mike Leake before Matt Festa struck out Justin Upton, who’d singled earlier in the inning, swinging on a 2-2 fastball.

The carnage only began when Angels leadoff man David Fletcher banged a double off the right center field wall. Trout stepped up in the number two slot and, proving it almost doesn’t matter where in the Angel lineup he hits, turned on a Leake sinker with about as much sink as a blimp and blasted it right into the rocks behind the center field fence.

Almost immediately after crossing the plate himself, Trout looked toward the Angel Stadium section where players’ wives or girl friends sit, until he caught Carli Skaggs’ eye. It looks as though he gave her a gentle affirmative nod. That one’s for your husband, Carli. And you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The inning from there went single (Shohei Ohtani), single (Justin Upton), swinging strikeout, RBI single (Andrelton Simmons scoring Ohtani), run-scoring error (Upton scoring as Mariners second baseman Dee Gordon misplayed a forceout), RBI single (Dustin Garneau), swinging strikeout, bases-loading single (Fletcher), and Trout’s two-run double.

And Trout wasn’t even close to finished for the night. The very next inning, a strikeout after Festa walked Simmons home, Festa hit Trout with a 2-0 slider to send home Justin Bour. Three innings and two more Mariners pitchers later, Trout squared off against Matt Wistler with Fletcher on second thanks to a single and a throwing error on the play and rifled a double to the back of left field, scoring Fletcher and making things 10-0.

All the while Pena continued keeping the Mariners from bringing their flippers to bear after Cole worked the first two spotless. About the only dicey moment he really faced, other than walking Mariners designated hitter Omar Narvaez in the fifth, was Mac Williamson smashing a grounder in the top of the sixth for which third baseman Matt Thaiss needed to make a diving stop and hard enough throw to nip Williamson.

Trout helped put another cherry atop the Angels’ sundae evening when he came home as Upton sent Mariners reliever Parker Markel’s 2-0 fastball over the center field fence. The Angel who patrols center field like a cop with acrobats in his family history did his evening’s work so well there wasn’t a baseball jury on earth who’d convict or sentence him for grounding out with the bases loaded to end the bottom of the eighth.

By then the only question left was whether Pena could finish the second combined no-no in Angels history. (The first was between Mark Langston and Mike Witt in 1990.) And, the first Angel no-hitter of any kind since Jered Weaver in 2012. Strangely enough, it was in 2012 that the Mariners themselves were last no-hit, courtesy of the White Sox’s Philip Humber’s perfect game.

The answer was Williamson flying out on the first pitch, Gordon grounding out on the second pitch, and Mallex Smith grounding out on the second pitch. Easy as 1, 2, 2.

“This,” tweeted Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, “is unbelievable. The baseball gods.”

Nobody’s really going to care for the smaller details of the night such as the Angels going 7-20 with runners at second base or better including Trout’s 3-for-4. Nobody’s going to care (too much) that, between them, Cole and Pena threw 63 strikes out of 103 pitches, with Cole striking out a pair and Pena punching out six.

Leave those details plus the Mariners’ seven pitchers combining to surrender eight earned runs, punching out eleven, but walking seven, to the statisticians. Because other than the surrealistic final score, and the absence of Mariners hits, nobody cared about any numbers above and beyond the 45 on the Angels’ backs Friday night.

Nobody cared about anything other than one baseball team coming home from a heartbroken road trip, seeing the massive makeshift memorial to their fallen teammate outside the home plate entrances to their ballpark, and taking a little extra incentive they hardly needed considering, to suit up and give him a sendoff he couldn’t have imagined but surely hoped wouldn’t come for decades yet to be. Decades he’ll see only from heaven.

With Skaggs’ clubhouse locker fully stocked and the team intending to keep it that way the rest of the season, the Angels had one more tribute to make after the game. They went out to the mound and covered it in Skaggs jerseys. Leaving the big 45 behind the pitching rubber exposed. There was nothing more they could possibly do.

Whether the Angels go from here to the postseason, even though they now sit in rear-view enough distance five and a half games and five teams away from a wild card slot, almost doesn’t matter. On Friday night, saying one more farewell to a pitcher they loved on the mound and even more as a young man, the Angels were bigger than baseball. And baseball didn’t seem to mind one bit.