Matt Shoemaker has spent almost all of his seven-year career in the minor leagues, including the last two seasons at triple A. Signed by the Angels as an undrafted free agent in 2008, the 27-year-old right-hander is neither a highly touted prospect nor an up-and-coming youngster.
He is what general managers call "organizational pitching depth," the type of guy who can be stashed at triple A in case a starter gets hurt or is struggling but is rarely viewed as a long-term rotation candidate.
So when Shoemaker was called up from Salt Lake last week to replace winless left-hander Hector Santiago in the rotation, he did not have any great expectations. He saw the move for what it was.
"It's an opportunity," he said. "Hopefully, I can grab ahold of it and run with it."
Two starts in, Shoemaker has broken into a sprint. After beating Philadelphia ace Cliff Lee on Tuesday, Shoemaker outpitched another of the game's best left-handers, Tampa Bay's David Price, in a 6-2 victory in Angel Stadium on Sunday.
Shoemaker escaped a first-and-third, one-out jam in the first inning, getting Evan Longoria to fly to shallow right and James Loney to fly to right, en route to a six-inning, one-run, two-hit effort in which he struck out six and walked three.
Effectively mixing his fastball, curve, slider and split-fingered fastball, Shoemaker threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 23 batters and jumped ahead of eight hitters with 1-and-2 counts.
"Getting ahead of hitters is important," Shoemaker said. "It puts them in a hole. They're going to be more antsy if it's 1-2 or 0-2. It works to your advantage."
Shoemaker barely flinched in the second when shortstop Erick Aybar lost David DeJesus' one-out popup in the sun, the ball dropping for a double. He got Wil Myers to ground out and, after walking Matt Joyce, struck out Longoria, the first of 10 consecutive batters he retired before a leadoff walk to James Loney in the seventh.
"I want to attack each game as, 'I have opportunity here, let's roll with it,'" Shoemaker said. "I want to execute my pitches, go as deep in the game as I can and help the team win."
It didn't hurt to have a 5-0 lead by the fourth, thanks to a 12-hit attack that featured solo homers by Albert Pujols in the first and seventh innings.
That helped the Angels win three of four from the Rays and eight of their last 10 games, though they actually lost a half-game to Oakland, whom they trail by 3 1/2 games in the American League West, in the stretch.
"Shoe did an outstanding job today, just like he did in Philly last week," Pujols said. "Our goal as hitters is to put as many runs up so pitchers can feel comfortable and make their pitches."
Santiago, demoted to the bullpen after going 0-6 with a 5.19 earned-run average in seven games, didn't get much support. The Angels scored 15 runs in his seven starts and committed several costly errors behind him.
But Santiago also walked 18 batters in 34 2/3 innings and committed two errors of his own, and with Shoemaker pitching well, he feels like a relay runner who has dropped the baton.
"I don't want to wish anything bad on any of our starters, but I'm motivated to win that spot back," Santiago said. "I did so much to earn it, and it was taken from me too quick."
Santiago has made one relief appearance, retiring two batters in Toronto on May 11. He threw a 25-pitch power bullpen Friday in an effort to remain sharp, but the longer he goes without pitching, the antsier he gets.
"It's definitely getting to the point where if the phone rings, I want it to be for me," Santiago said. "I'm concerned. Am I going to be ready to go six or seven innings, to throw 100 pitches, if I've gone 10 or 11 days without working?"
There is a chance the Angels could option Santiago to triple A to keep him stretched out as a starter.
When — or if — Santiago returns to the rotation, it will be with a different mind-set.
"I'm not going to put so much pressure on myself to throw the perfect pitch," he said. "If a 30-homer hitter is up, how many homers is he going to hit in 600 at-bats? The odds are still in my favor that he's not going to homer. I was kind of avoiding that, trying to make a great pitch when all I had to do was make my pitch."