It will be almost impossible for Matt Shoemaker to pry the American League rookie-of-the-year award from the meaty mitts of Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu, who is hitting .308 with 33 homers and a league-leading 94 runs batted in.
But the Angels right-hander with the thick, black beard and disappearing split-fingered fastball has clearly thrust himself into the conversation with a body of work that seems to grow more impressive by the week.
Shoemaker, backed by a robust, 16-hit attack, allowed two hits and struck out six in seven shutout innings Tuesday night to lead an 8-2 victory over the Miami Marlins that moved the Angels (78-53) into first place in the AL West, a game ahead of Oakland.
This came on the heels of last Thursday night’s masterful 7 2/3-inning, one-hit, nine-strikeout effort in a 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park.
Shoemaker, 27, who opened the season as a long reliever and replaced the struggling Hector Santiago in the rotation in May, improved to 13-4 with a 3.33 earned-run average in 23 games, 16 of them starts.
He is the first Angels rookie to notch 13 wins since Jason Dickson in 1997, and he needs only one more win to tie Dean Chance, Marcelino Lopez and Frank Tanana for the club rookie record of 14 wins.
Not bad for a guy who was an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan University in 2008 and spent six years in the minor leagues before making his big league debut last September.
“You can see the way his stuff plays — it’s not like he didn’t have the potential to do this — but sometimes it takes a while for guys to get their opportunity,” Manager Mike Scioscia said.
“It’s tough enough to make the major leagues, but to make a footprint here is a totally different chapter in your development. He is making the most of getting the ball every fifth day and going out there and pitching. It’s great to see.”
Shoemaker has been something of a savior to a team that lost starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs to season-ending injuries this month.
His start in Fenway Park last week came one night after the bullpen absorbed 7 1/3 innings in the game Richards was hurt in. Tuesday night’s win came after relievers threw 5 2/3 innings Monday night.
“There was no doubt we needed some length from Matt tonight,” Scioscia said. “Getting into the seventh was huge, especially putting up zeros. That’s more important than anything, winning the game.”
Now, if the Angels could unearth another hidden gem such as Shoemaker to fill Richards’ spot and start Saturday against the Athletics, they would really be on to something.
Wade LeBlanc got the first crack at replacing Richards, but he won’t get another. The left-hander was designated for assignment Tuesday after allowing six runs and seven hits in 3 1/3 innings Monday night.
Among the in-house options to start Saturday are left-hander Michael Roth, who threw seven shutout innings for double-A Arkansas on Monday and could start Saturday on regular rest, and triple-A left-hander Randy Wolf, who is scheduled to start Friday but could be pushed back.
Triple-A right-hander Chris Volstad and double-A right-hander Drew Rucinski are also options.
Possible trade targets such as Bartolo Colon (New York Mets), Scott Feldman (Houston) and Trevor Cahill (Arizona) have reportedly cleared waivers, but all appear out of financial reach for the Angels, who will be pushing up against the $189-million luxury tax threshold next season.
Colon is 41 and will make $11 million in 2015, Feldman has two more years and $18 million left on his deal, and Cahill, who was 2-2 with a 3.43 earned run average in seven starts before giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings to the Dodgers on Tuesday night, is guaranteed $12 million next season.
Follow Mike DiGiovanna on Twitter @MikeDiGiovanna