Standing so far out of first place presents occasional advantages.
After they lost to Houston late Tuesday, the Angels received a bit of good news: Instead of drawing the Astros’ talented Lance McCullers on Wednesday, they would face Mike Fiers, an inconsistent long reliever.
Houston’s stated reason for scratching McCullers was arm fatigue he felt in a game of catch. Surely, their 14-game American League West lead on the Angels played a role too: They would like to preserve McCullers for the postseason.
The Angels took the stroke of luck and thrashed Fiers in a 9-1 victory at Angel Stadium. They scored a run before he could record an out and five before he could finish the first inning.
Brandon Phillips and Mike Trout began with consecutive doubles, and Kole Calhoun and Andrelton Simmons soon knocked another set of doubles. Luis Valbuena, up next, sent a soaring homer into the right-field bleachers, supplying the Angels that impenetrable five-run lead. As he often does, Valbuena flipped his bat to celebrate his achievement.
When Valbuena approached the plate to begin the fourth inning, Fiers, his former teammate, fired a fastball far above his head. As players in both dugouts inched toward the field, Valbuena lifted one hand at Fiers, frustrated. Both teams received warnings.
“When you do something like that as disrespectful as he did, you’ve got to send some kind of message,” Fiers said. “I’m not trying to hit him. But something has be to said.”
Valbuena knocked Fiers’ next pitch into right field for a double, sparking a three-run inning. He said he did not receive Fiers’ message as intended. “If you want to hit me, that’s OK,” Valbuena said. “But if I hit another home run, you’ll see what happens.”
Left-hander Tyler Skaggs stewarded the eight-run lead with remarkable efficiency. Against an aggressive Astros lineup, he needed 60 pitches to finish five innings and 85 to settle seven. He issued his first walk in the fifth, then erased it with a double-play ball. Wielding a new, effective two-seam fastball, he gave up only three singles in seven scoreless innings: a bunt, a blooper, and a grounder through the middle.
“His stuff is real,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Skaggs has been disappointed in his performances for much of the season. This felt better.
“I’m smiling,” Skaggs said. “It’s better than being all sad after games.”
The Angels’ most tense moment in the field happened to begin the game, when George Springer hit a ball deep to left field. Justin Upton momentarily lost it in Angel Stadium’s LED lights, recovering with little time to spare.
“Wow,” he mouthed to Trout in center field, his disbelief at the white-light intensity apparent.
In the sixth, Upton hit his first homer as an Angel and the 250th of his career. Tyler Clippard left a first-pitch fastball over the middle of the plate, and Upton seized on it.
Because Minnesota beat San Diego in 10 innings, the Angels (74-71) remained two games behind the Twins in the wild-card chase.
“It’s going to come down to the last game,” Skaggs said. “They know that. We know that.”
Ramirez has tear
In one year, JC Ramirez rose from a long reliever placed on waivers by an awful team to become the Angels’ most valuable starting pitcher along their surprise playoff run. Now, his future is in question.
The 29-year-old right-hander said Wednesday that he has a partial tear in the ulnar collateral ligament of his right elbow, which he is hoping a stem-cell injection will help heal.
Ramirez first felt elbow discomfort while warming up for his fifth inning in Cleveland on July 27. He pushed through the pain and made four more starts, most of them effective, until he exited an Aug. 19 outing in Baltimore because of what the Angels described as forearm irritation. An MRI exam the following week revealed the tear, and Ramirez soon received the stem-cell injection. He described it as “weird and a little bit painful.”
The hope is he’ll be cleared to resume throwing in November and pitch normally next season. If the stem cells do not take hold, his next step is not yet clear. Surgery would require him to miss all of 2018.
Ramirez will finish 2017 with a 4.15 earned-run average in 1471/3 innings.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura