Opening Day: Cross it off the bucket list

Shohei Ohtani

Shohei Ohtani, shown on the Angel Stadium video board during his pre-game warmup as the teams lined up on the foul lines, on Opening Day. He pitched brilliantly but in a lost cause, the Angels losing 3-1.

The owners probably won’t stop by to see what I’m about to write, but their otherwise ill-advised 1 December-10 March lockout did me one solid. But only one.

After the World Series, and as soon as they went on sale, I’d bought tickets for what I thought would be the Angels’ home opener. They were scheduled originally to open the season on the road. But commissioner Rob Manfred’s cancellation of the regular season’s first series, in light of the owners’ further goalpost-moving shenanigans, turned the Angels’ home opener into Opening Day, after all.

It wasn’t enough to turn my thinking toward the owners’ side one iota, but it did enable me to cross something off my bucket list. Despite a lifetime of loving the game and watching countless games in the stands and on television, I’d never actually had the chance to be at the ballpark on Opening Day. Until Thursday evening.

The best part of the evening was that I got to do it with my now 28-year-old son, Bryan. The second-best part was being able to cross another item off the baseball bucket list within half an hour of us getting our pre-game food and drink, after putting replica 1972-1990 Angels hats onto our heads.

The Ball

The foul ball, now crossed off my bucket list, sitting atop my notebook, before I handed it to my son.

While the visiting Astros took batting practise, a line drive sailed into our section down the right field line. Adjacent fans made it impossible for me to see just which Astro hit the ball, but the ball bounced around off seats in front of us, then under them, and riocheted off a fan two seats to our right, before rolling on the floor under us to where I could grab the ball before another fan reaching under the seat in front of me did.

I held the ball up to see for myself that I wasn’t seeing or imagining things, then handed it to my son. He’d only been asking to try to catch a ball at Angel Stadium since, oh, the first time I got to take him there—in 2000, when the Angels beat the visiting Yankees one fine evening by prying the winning run out of The Mariano himself. We’d gone to plenty of games since. Thursday night, it was pay dirt at long enough last.

Of course, there was now a game to play, and the Angels lost, 3-1. These are my ten takeaways:

1) Shoh-time! The good news for the Angels was Shohei Ohtani starting on the mound. I’m convinced that what looked to be a lockout-dejected, ho-hum crowd in advance, shot into a near-sellout once Ohtani was announced as the Opening Day pitcher. Lockout after-effect, I suspected: I’d checked the ticketing for the game just prior to the announcement and there were several thousand seats remaining for the taking.

Well, now. The day before I set out for southern California from my home in Las Vegas, I checked the ticketing again. The tickets seemed to have flown off the board once Angel fans knew it would be Shoh-time. And Ohtani didn’t disappoint, much. He pitched four and two-thirds innings of one-run, nine-strikeout, four-hit, one-walk baseball.

The best the Astros could do against him was the third inning, after he caught Martin Maldonado looking at strike three and blew Jose Altuve away with a swinging third strike: Michael Brantley banged a double off the right center field fence and Alex Bregman sent him home promptly with a base hit to left center.

As a matter of fact, when Ohtani wasn’t becoming the first player in Show history to throw his team’s first pitch of the season and make his team’s first plate appearance of the season (the Angels like to bat him leadoff), he manhandled Altuve for three strikeouts on the night, including the nasty slider that shot over Altuve’s hard swing for the third such strikeout in the top of the fiftyh.

2) The bad news: Astros starter Framber Valdez was just as effective in six and two-thirds innings. (The Angels planned to keep their starting pitchers on an 80-pitch limit for the time being, after the lockout-imposed too-short spring training.) He struck six out, walked one, and surrendered two of the Angels’ four hits on the night.

3) The worse news, for the Angels: They came to within inches of taking a 2-1 lead in the seventh. Mike Trout led off by beating out a throw from shortstop that should have been ruled an infield hit but was ruled an error. Then Anthony Rendon hit a high liner that sailed into the left field seats . . . but missed the foul pole on the wrong side by a hair.

“When I saw the ball flying in the air,” Valdez said post-game of his narrow escape, “I got mad with myself that I didn’t make my best pitch. I just took a deep breath and threw my best pitch.” That would be the hard sinkerball on which Rendon promptely dialed Area Code 4-6-3.

Matt Duffy promptly beat out an infield hit to third, which promptly moved Astros manager Dusty Baker to end Valdez’s night and bring Phil Maton in to strike Jo Adell out swinging for the side.

4) Cruising speed: Maton seemed on a bit of a cruise in relief until he hit Brandon Marsh with a pitch with two out in the bottom of the eighth and David Fletcher shot a 1-2 pitch through to the back of left center and gunned it for an RBI triple. That was the Angels’ first and last run of the game, alas.

5) The worse news, for baseball as a whole: That ridiculous three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. Under normal circumstances, if your reliever comes into the game and gets murdered right away—as Angels reliever Ryan Tepera was in the top of the eighth—you’d know he didn’t have it that night, right?

Father and son

Father (right) crossed Opening Day off his bucket list at last—and had the pleasure of doing it with his 28-year-old son.

Oops. Tepera’s first pitch to Alex Bregman sailed into the left field seats. The next Astros batter, Yordan Alvarez, hit a hanging slider on 1-1 over the center field fence. The Angels were lucky to escape with their lives after two prompt deep fly outs (Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker) followed by a sinking liner up the middle (Jeremy Peña) that Trout caught on the dead run in from somewhat deep center to retire the side. (Trout also drew a loud ovation after he turned around and, from half-shallow center, winged the ball to fans halfway up the right center field bleachers.)

6) But there was good news on the relief front. Neither manager burned his relievers in the bullpens. If either Baker or Joe Maddon warmed a pitcher up, he either came into the game as soon as needed or he was handed what amounted to the rest of the night off. No Angels or Astros reliever was called upon to warm up more than once.

I paid as much attention to the relievers in the pen as I could, considering I was seated far opposite the pens behind the left field fence. The Angels used five relievers and the Astros, three. None of those eight pitchers threw any more than maybe 20-25 pitches before they were brought into the game. None of them could be called gassed going in.

Tepera simply didn’t have it Thursday night; Maton got vulnerable after ending one inning and getting two outs to open the next. The rest of the two teams’ bullpen corps (Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly for the Astros; Aaron Loup, Austin Warren, Jose Quijada, and Archie Bradley for the Angels) pitched clean-as-a-hound’s-tooth relief. Would that all major league managers were that judicious handling their pen men.

7) Memo to: Angel fans. Subject: The Wave. The 1980s called. They want their obnoxious, obstructive Wave back. One fan adjacent to our section kept calling for fans to do the Wave. I kept shaking my head, but I did notice that each of about ten attempts at it starting in our part of the park died before flowing to a fourth section of the field-level seats. Maybe there’s hope in such deaths, after all.

8) You were saying? The back-to-back Astro bombs to one side, this game wasn’t exactly the kind to send the old farts screaming to the whiskey shots. The game’s twelve total hits included three Astros doubles, Fletcher’s triple, and six singles. Altuve even stole second in the ninth, for whatever that was worth, since he ended up stranded.

9) Wasted Out Department: Altuve, the Astros’ pint-sized, gallon-hitting second baseman, also dropped a sacrifice bunt to third with one out in the seventh against righthanded reliever Warren, after Chas McCormick opened the inning with a double. Remember: A man on second with one out, and you have less chance of scoring a run after that bunt than you did before the bunt, even if you do exactly what Altuve did pushing McCormick to third.

Just what a man with a lifetime .512 Real Batting Average (total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances), and a .297 lifetime hitting average with a man on second and one out, is doing thinking sacrifice escapes. With his team leading a mere 1-0 at the time, the Angels brought Quijada in to pitch to Brantley, and Brantley flied out shy of the track in right center for the side.

That’s what a wasted out did. The righthanded-hitting Altuve might have been futile against Ohtani on the night, but he has a lifetime .301 hitting average against righthanded pitchers. The Astros would have had a better chance scoring McCormick if Altuve hit away.

10) When Bregman checked in at the plate in the top of the eighth, the Angel Stadium video boards flashed a graphic with Bregman’s head shot plus this: [He] donated over 200 iPads  w/protective cases and iTunes gift cards to several Houston-area elementary schools that have autistic classrooms. He does that through his Bregman Cares charity, with a particular focus upon autistic children.

It was almost as admirable for the Angels to show Bregman such respectful acknowledgement as it was for Bregman and his wife, Reagan, to take such an interest in lending hands to autistic children. Even if Bregman’s idea of saying thank you for such respect was to smash a leadoff homer in reply.

The Edgy Angels?

Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it . . . There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.—Mike Trout.

Ask manager Joe Maddon, as The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal has, how long he wants to keep managing, and he’ll smile when he says it even if he’s not kidding. “As long as Mick Jagger performs,” the skipper replies. Well, now.

Maddon’s Angels aren’t exactly the Rolling Stones of baseball, even if the team was created three years before the original Stones lineup cut their first record in England. The Angels have had disasters in their midsts, too, but nobody to the best of anyone’s knowledge has been killed during an Angels game. Yet.

There were times over the years when you might have thought the Angels might have wanted to kill a manager or two, if not each other, but no edition of the Angels was ever as willing to fight each other as the 1972-74 Athletics.

For several years, now, two themes have attached to the Angels: 1) They find everything they need except quality pitching. 2) It might be easier to pass the proverbial camel through the proverbial eye of the proverbial needle than to get the Angels back to the postseason before Mike Trout earns the last dollar on his contract. (In 2030, if you’re scoring at home.)

This is a team that’s had the single greatest player of his and many generations (Baseball Reference lists him as the number five center fielder of all time), a guy who plays a solid center field and whose five top comps as a batter through age 29 are, in descending order, Duke Snider, Willie Mays, Vladimir Guerrero (Sr.), Barry Bonds, and Frank Robinson.

And he hasn’t seen even a sliver of a postseason since his Rookie of the Year 2012, through no fault of his own. Trout exercised maybe baseball’s greatest sense of loyalty when he decided to forego his first entry into the free agency market to sign that $330.1 million contract extension just a sliver over two years ago. Questioning the Angels’ loyalty to him—as in, a team their and baseball’s best all-around player could be proud of—was wholly appropriate.

But Rosenthal now gives the Angels two cheers. Not just because the Angels in this abbreviated spring training look healthy and even happy, but because second-year general manager Perry Minasian has impressed the living daylights out of just about everybody in an Angel uniform, from the manager to Trout to all the way down the roster.

“It starts from the front office, the desire to win, the desire to be better every day,” says one of Minasian’s signature signings, former Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard, a guy who’s been to the World Series and to two postseasons total. “I see a lot of what I saw in 2015, just the overall grit and badass persona, playing with a chip on our shoulder. It’s been a while since the Angels made the playoffs. This is my first year here. The overall tone is they’re kind of all sick of this s—.”

If anyone has credentials to discuss badass personae, it’s the guy who thought nothing of opening Game Three of the 2015 World Series by dropping Kansas City shortstop Alcides Escobar—who’d gotten a little too comfortable at the plate in the first two games—right onto his seat with the first pitch, before striking him out emphatically. Perhaps coincidentally, it was the only Series game those Mets won in a set during which their then-porous defense blew three other games they could have won.

That was then, this is now. Syndergaard isn’t the only Angels pitcher saying they’re sick of all that you-know-what. “I see a bunch of guys that are hungry, that know the pressure is on us,” says young starting pitcher Patrick Sandoval. “Everyone says the Angels’ rotation is a question mark every single year. The guys like me, Shohei [Ohtani] and [Jaime] Barría, we’ve heard it for three years now. We’re kind of sick of it.”

Minasian also did what was once thought unthinkable, never mind undoable in the recent Angels past. He overhauled the bullpen, $92.75 worth of overhaul, keeping closer Raisel Iglesias (2.83 fielding-independent pitching rate last year) on a four-year deal, and guaranteeing former Met/Ray/Padre/Phillie/Blue Jay Aaron Loup (2.45 FIP last year) plus former White Sox/Cub/Jay Ryan Tepera (2.56 FIP) two years each.

The Angels also think that a healthy Trout and Anthony Rendon married to Ohtani’s bat in the lineup makes them a little more formidable at the plate. They may not be wrong. Especially playing under the new rule that allows Ohtani, the defending American League Most Valuable Player, to stay in a game as the designated hitter when his starting pitching assignment ends for the day. Just as he did in last year’s All-Star Game.

Trout is even doing something a little more overtly now that he did only by example his first ten seasons: leading. What he began when he made himself the team’s public face in the shock of Tyler Skaggs’s death in 2019 he’s continuing more verbally than he ever has in the past.

He spoke often of what Skaggs meant as a person as well as a pitcher. (This was well enough before we learned sadly enough that Skaggs was badly hooked on painkillers, a hooking that may have gone back to his Tommy John surgery and may have been abetted by his own agent urging him to pitch through pain regardless.)

Maybe the most staggering and surreal recent memory for Angel fans was their first home game after Skaggs’s unexpected death. When Trout opened the evening’s proceedings against the Mariners with a mammoth two-run homer in the bottom of the first, launching a combined no-hitter (by Taylor Cole and Felix Pena) and a 13-0 blowout.

“When I first came up, I kind of just went out there and played my game, let my game speak for itself,” Trout admitted to Rosenthal.

I’m to a point now where I can speak up a little bit. That’s a new thing for me. I just go out there and play. But I think this team needs it. I’ve had a lot of talks with the front office and players. There’s a time and a place. If something needs to be straightened out, I’m going to take care of it. That’s a big step for me. I think that step needs to be taken for this team to win.

Trout’s coming-out party as a conscious leader came before this lockout-abbreviated spring training began. When commissioner Rob Manfred announced that first set of canceled games, Trout was distinctly unamused. The guy who did his talking with his bat, his glove, and his personal fan-friendliness fired back.

“I want to play, I love our game, but I know we need to get this [collective bargaining agreement] right,” he tweeted on 2 March. “Instead of bargaining in good faith-MLB locked us out. Instead of negotiating a fair deal-Rob canceled games. Players stand together. For our game, for our fans, and for every player who comes after us.”

Maybe it’s the Angels about to play their first full season since Albert Pujols’s departure last year, but Maddon thinks it’s just a question of Trout having the chance to lead. “He wants to lead,” the manager says. “To me, that means, on a daily basis, when you walk in the building to put everybody else before you. He’s definitely got that in him. He’s very empathetic. He wants to win. He’s willing to share his knowledge. He’s got all the ingredients. He just needed the opportunity.”

And he doesn’t mind pulling others up with him. When Ohtani hogged the headlines last year, after the calf tear put paid to Trout’s season prematurely, Trout enjoyed Shohtime as much as anybody else.

“Shohei’s season was nothing short of electric,” he said when Ohtani won the MVP. “At times, I felt like I was back in Little League. To watch a player throw eight innings, hit a home run, steal a base, and then go play right field was incredible. What impresses me the most about him, though, is the way he carries himself both on and off the field. With so much on his plate daily, he still manages to do it with a smile.”

Imagine that. The Smiling Angels. Whom FanGraphs projects to a seventh-best 82 wins among American League teams. Not so fast, Rosenthal warns:

Projections are largely pointless except as a discussion point, especially in a season when injuries might be more prevalent after a shortened spring training. But the Angels face so many “ifs,” it’s difficult to imagine them being better than the six teams ahead of them — the Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, Red Sox, White Sox, and Rays. They also might not be better than the Twins and Mariners, the two teams immediately behind them.

I have more than the usual skin in this game. Somehow, I managed to score tickets for what was first the Angels’ mere home opener but, thanks to the owners’ lockout and Commissioner Nero’s first cancellations, is Opening Day, period, at Angel Stadium. Ohtani is already announced as their starting pitcher. My 28-year-old son and myself will be seated in our standard perch down the right field line.

We’ll look for two things at minimum: 1) Whether there will remain Angel fans willing to hammer the visiting Astros with inflatable trash can bangings and other signs, shouts, and sneers over Astrogate. 2) Whether these Smiling Angels, these Edgy Angels, these Fed Up With All That You-Know-What Angels, show just how fed up they are at the plate and in the field through those edgy new smiles.

Being an Angel fan has been many things in the decades since they were born in the American League’s first expansion. Dull hasn’t been one of them, though being dulled–if not sent to their nineteenth nervous breakdowns—has been something else entirely. And living on that 2002 World Series triumph got tiresome well before they wrapped their silks around a big fish named Trout.