Angels’ Tyler Skaggs is motivated by Kobe Bryant before return to mound

Angels left-handed pitcher Tyler Skaggs at spring training at Tempe Diablo Stadium on February 26.

Angels left-handed pitcher Tyler Skaggs at spring training at Tempe Diablo Stadium on February 26.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Tyler Skaggs went to catch one last glimpse of his idol Wednesday night.

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers played the Phoenix Suns, and Skaggs sat courtside, next to teammates Mike Trout, Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver. Trout got them into the visitors’ locker room after the Lakers lost.

There, they met Bryant, and listened to him talk while he underwent treatment. Speaking to the four Angels and Padres teammates James Shields and Matt Kemp, Bryant emphasized the importance of prioritizing winning and avoiding corner-cutting while rehabilitating injuries.

“I felt like he was speaking to me personally, even though he wasn’t,” Skaggs said. “I was taken aback by it. We saw him in his element, in the trainer’s room, just us. It was unbelievable. It fired me up.”


For a few hours, it took Skaggs’ mind off what he would do the next afternoon, when he appeared in his first baseball game in 19 months. Skaggs entered in the bottom of the seventh inning at Camelback Ranch, shaking uncontrollably through the first two batters he faced. His first fastball missed up by a foot.

When the second batter, Chicago White Sox catcher Alex Avila, flew out to left on the first pitch, Skaggs settled down. He ripped off a curveball to strike out Austin Jackson and end the inning.

In the eighth, Skaggs induced two routine grounders and a pop-out. An error on the first grounder brought a fourth hitter to the plate, and Skaggs allowed him to single, scoring an unearned run. Up came former top prospect Matt Davidson, and Skaggs struck him out looking.

On the bus ride to the ballpark, the 24-year-old left-hander had exchanged texts with Davidson, his friend and fellow former Diamondback. The two knew they might match up. Thinking ahead, Skaggs wrote that he was feeling particularly confident in his curveball.

And then he threw his friend three consecutive fastballs.

“I blew the doors off of him,” Skaggs said. “I knew I got into his head.”

The moment he stepped onto the mound, Skaggs was in his own head, recalling the circumstances of the last time he pitched: July 31, 2014.

That night, he was no-hitting Baltimore through four innings. He struck out the first two batters he faced in the fifth, but lost feeling in his hand as he faced Steve Pearce, whom he walked. Skaggs tried one more pitch, to Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, and felt nothing. He motioned for Manager Mike Scioscia to come out of the dugout.

Tests revealed Skaggs had suffered a partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Two weeks later, he underwent Tommy John surgery and set his sights on 2016. He had no significant setbacks, and Thursday’s outing puts him on track to return to the major leagues by the end of April.

Scioscia called the two innings a “great starting point.”

“He looked like he just picked up where he left off,” the manager said.


Many of the days since the surgery have been terrible. Skaggs came to question himself, wonder how good he once was, worry about how good he still could become. Thursday was just one day, but it was a better day than he had hoped, he said.

“It’s one of those things where I’m just really happy with myself,” he said. “I put in the hard work, I put in the time, I didn’t cut any corners. I’m really hyped about it.”

Short hops

The Angels fired special-assignment scout Tim Schmidt this month. Schmidt had been with the organization since 2011, when Jerry Dipoto hired him away from Arizona. Schmidt was well-known in the industry for his tireless work ethic. … Jon Wilhite, a survivor of the 2009 crash that killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, began a stint as a guest instructor at Angels camp. Wilhite was a catcher at Cal State Fullerton. … Outfielder Craig Gentry did not come to camp Thursday. He has flu. Daniel Nava drew the start in his stead against a left-hander.

Twitter: @pedromoura