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Harnessing his fastball could keep Angels pitcher Keynan Middleton on fast track

One year ago this week, Keynan Middleton was warming up on a back field at the Chicago Cubsspring training facility. He had some time until he was to take the mound, and he felt ready, so the young Angels right-hander fooled with his delivery. When he lifted his left leg and turned on one pitch, he decided to move his torso with it, “doing the little Johnny Cueto twist.”

The pitch felt great as it exited his hand, the catcher told him the ball was zipping, and he brought that delivery into the minor league game.

“It worked,” Middleton said. “So I kept doing it.”

Middleton’s baseball career is a result of similarly quick thinking. He had little pitching experience when the Angels selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft and signed him for $450,000. A Portland native, he was recruited to play basketball at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore., and hoped to transfer to Washington State. He joined the baseball team, too, but basketball season ran into baseball season, so he threw his first pitches of the season in March.

“Basketball was really my passion,” Middleton said. “But I was, obviously, more gifted playing baseball.”

Middleton’s athletic 6-foot-3 frame and 95-mph velocity quickly attracted scouts to his starts. His college basketball coach, Bruce Chavka, recalled an April home game he visited at which he thought there might have been more scouts than fans in attendance.

“At my level,” Chavka said, “that kind of guy does not come around.”

Middleton immediately passed on basketball, accepted the Angels’ below-slot bonus offer, and headed to Arizona. Over the next two years, he exhibited plenty of potential, but never enough consistency or control throughout his starts. He believes that to be a product of trying to adjust too often.

“The thing I learned about the minor leagues is, you take the things you can use from coaches and keep those,” Middleton said earlier this spring. “The things that you can’t, you try them and push them to the side.”

He finished 2015 at low Class-A in tiny Burlington, Iowa, where some 2015 draftees had already joined him. He had a 5.30 earned-run average.

When he reported to camp last year at 179 pounds after playing pickup basketball all winter, club officials told him to bulk up or risk a return.

“I was comfortable when I got drafted,” Middleton said. “I was comfortable with where I was at. I was comfortable being a high draft pick. But last year, they were like, ‘You could go back to Burlington.’ And I was like . . . I am not going back to Burlington.’

“And then I turned the corner and was done playing around.”

He struck out 88 batters over 66 innings last season, all out of the bullpen. Instead of spending his summer in Iowa, he started at high-A Inland Empire and earned two promotions, all the way to triple-A Salt Lake, where the stadium radar gun once clocked his fastball at 102 mph.

In September, Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said Middleton was “clearly one of the stronger arrows that has pointed up on our team this season.

“More important than the velocity is how the fastball plays, because we’ve seen cases of guys that throw very hard who actually get hit, and we’ve seen guys that throw much lower than that that don’t get hit,” Eppler said. “You couple that with what looks like a solid average to maybe above-average slider, and a very good, powerful delivery, and we’re pretty optimistic about his future.”

Now 23, Middleton arrived at spring training weighing 215 and saying his only goal was to make the team’s opening-day roster. That seems unlikely; he’s been hit hard in several spring appearances, his velocity has rarely surpassed 97 mph, and Manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged that he has “at times tried too hard.”

But his roster readiness could change soon.

Skaggs set for Wednesday

Left-hander Tyler Skaggs said he will start Wednesday against San Francisco and throw two innings. He was scratched from his last scheduled start because his shoulder did not match pre-spring strength levels in a test following his spring debut.

But, Skaggs said, his shoulder returned to the previous level when tested the following day. And he threw two bullpen sessions in the intervening week, with Scioscia watching each pitch.

He and the team believe he will still have enough time to get ready for the season, if no other obstacles appear. He said the plan is for him to face minor league hitters on the team’s March 20 off day, then throw four innings March 25, then five on March 30, in the Freeway Series. That would allow him to throw up to 90 pitches in the first week of the season, nearly a normal allotment.

“Obviously the margin of error starts to work against you as you move forward,” Scioscia said. “But he can still get to be where he needs to be to start the season.”

Short hops

Infielder Luis Valbuena said he will play Wednesday. He has not appeared in a Cactus League game since March 2 because of sore legs, but ran the bases Tuesday. … The Angels sent three pitchers to minor league camp: left-hander Greg Mahle and right-handers Drew Gagnon and Eduardo Paredes.

pedro.moura@latimes.com

Twitter: @pedromoura

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