Seven starts into the 2016 campaign, Matt Shoemaker was the American League’s worst starting pitcher. The Angels sent him down to the minors, recalling him only when injuries made it absolutely necessary.
But, for his second consecutive start Friday night at Angel Stadium, Shoemaker dominated his opponent like one of baseball’s best pitchers, providing reminders of his improbable rookie season in 2014.
That year, he won 16 of 20 decisions, surpassed Masahiro Tanaka in awards voting, and earned commendation as the Angels’ season-saver. This time, the 29-year-old right-hander struck out 11 Houston hitters in a near complete-game shutout, and the Angels beat the Astros, 7-2.
“This is reminiscent of a couple years ago, but with a little something extra,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “These last two games have been as good as you can pitch.”
Last Saturday, Shoemaker struck out 12 Baltimore batters over eight scoreless innings. He finished eight scoreless again this time, and then Scioscia left him in for his first ninth as a big leaguer.
There, gave up a single, got a fly ball for the first out, but then Colby Rasmus singled through the right side. That brought Scioscia out of the dugout to jeers from the crowd.
In came reliever Cam Bedrosian, who yielded a two-run single to Colin Moran, a rookie third baseman hitless until Friday’s game. It spoiled Shoemaker’s 152/3-inning scoreless streak but did nothing to spoil the purity of victory.
Again and again, Shoemaker set down Astros with little trouble. His mistakes were so few they can all be recounted here: Carlos Correa singled in the first inning, and was promptly picked off first. A bunch of harmless singles were hit. And, in the seventh, Shoemaker yielded a 372-foot drive to Moran, but Mike Trout grabbed it five feet from the fence.
Otherwise, he befuddled the Astros with his sinking splitter and fastballs low in the zone. Among his career-high 116 pitches, Shoemaker threw a higher-than-normal proportion of splitters. His four-seam fastball averaged 93 mph, the second-highest mark of his career, behind only a 2014 start.
“We always felt that at some point he was going to get back to where he was,” Scioscia said. “None of us feel that a couple years ago was a fluke. We’re not at all surprised with the last two games he’s pitched.”
The Angels were off Thursday. On Wednesday, they had been run around by Texas in an ugly 15-9 loss. This time, against another division rival, they did the running.
Rafael Ortega blasted a double to right field to lead off the third inning, then took third on Carlos Perez’s looping single to center. Gregorio Petit battled back from an 0-2 count to walk the bases loaded.
Kole Calhoun singled to left to score one run, and then Trout banged a double off the center-field wall to score three. Four pitches later, Albert Pujols landed one just beyond where Trout had missed for a two-run home run, the 570th of his career, and the Angels led, 6-0.
“We got the guys up,” Scioscia said. “We set the table for the guys in the middle and they came through.”
They added a seventh run in the fourth off Astros starter Mike Fiers, when Petit lashed a double and Yunel Escobar singled him in. Soon, Fiers gave way to Chris Devenski, a local man made good, a product of Cerritos and then Cal State Fullerton. He threw the remaining 41/3 scoreless innings, giving up only one hit.
Before Friday, the Astros and Angels had not met, although between them they had faced the Rangers 15 times. Both clubs have disappointed in 2016 — the Angels, at least in part because of a rash of injuries, but the Astros mostly due to poor performances from their stars.
Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel has pitched like a back-of-the-rotation starter. Center fielder Carlos Gomez was one of the worst hitters in baseball until he got hurt earlier this month. Correa, better than anyone expected as a 20-year-old in 2015, has been merely average.
Instead of acting as the team to beat, they might be toiling as the team for the Angels to beat up on.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter: @pedromoura