The sliders spun surely and sharply out of the hand of Angels pitcher Felix Pena on Wednesday night.
So steady were the breaking balls that through three innings at Angel Stadium, Pena had induced 10 swings and misses, and gotten four straight strikeouts on the pitch he’s relied on most this year.
But as the Angels built a lead in a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays, Pena lost steam.
The Angels employed a reliever to pitch the first inning for the fourth time this season and it worked in their favor on Wednesday. The middle of the Blue Jays’ order seemed rattled by Pena’s mid-80s slider and harder-than-average fastball. Pena retired nine straight batters on 35 pitches, few of which made contact with a Blue Jays bat.
Pena misfired a slider to start the fifth inning, allowing Rowdy Tellez to hit a home run for the Blue Jays’ first hit of the evening, but he didn’t begin to falter until he threw the 52nd pitch of his outing in the sixth.
Pena’s fortunes have regularly turned after eclipsing the 50-pitch mark. He entered Wednesday allowing a .286 batting average beyond his 50th pitch.
The only diagnosis Pena had for this habit was mechanics. He has been working for weeks with Angels pitching coaches Doug White and Andrew Bailey on ways to keep his hips from flying open as he rears back to throw a pitch.
He can keep his mechanics for a significant part of an outing. After a while, he gets out of whack.
“I have to keep working on that to be able to get there and keep pitching well,” Pena said in Spanish.
On Wednesday, the issues flared up again.
Danny Jansen ripped an 88-mph fastball on Pena’s second pitch of the sixth inning. Two batters later, Randal Grichuk turned on a middle-in fastball. He annihilated the pitch, sending the pitch 405 feet over the right-field fence in 41/2 seconds.
Pena gave up a double to Justin Smoak moments after receiving a mound visit from Doug White. He didn’t last beyond that. Manager Brad Ausmus lifted him, replacing him with Justin Anderson and handing the keys to a bullpen that held firm without allowing any further damage. Rookie Ty Buttrey picked up a six-out save.
Asked if he was concerned by Pena’s durability, Ausmus said no.
“I don’t really read into it but we’re aware of it,” he said. “I mean, the truth is if we decide that Pena is best at a 45 to 50 pitch count then maybe we’ll utilize him in that fashion but we just haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
The Angels secured their fifth win in six games despite facing one of the American League’s most dominant starting pitchers this year. Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman entered the game with a 1.43 ERA and a commendable strikeout-per-nine-innings rate of 8.6. He hadn’t allowed a home run in 372/3 innings.
But the Angels put Stroman to work. Tommy La Stella, leading the Angels lineup for the second time this season, ripped a single to right field to start the first inning. He scored three batters later on Albert Pujols’ sacrifice fly, which gave Pujols 1,998 RBIs of his career. The Angels took a 1-0 lead, giving Pena breathing room when he entered the game moments later.
La Stella scored again in the fourth on Mike Trout’s bases-clearing double down the third base line in the fourth inning.
Trout collected three RBIs on the hit, tying La Stella for the team lead with 19 runs batted in.
“He’s got good stuff,” said Trout, who set a franchise record by reaching base in his first 28 games of the season with a single in the first inning.
“He was throwing everything. I got into some good counts and fouled off some good pitches. He was painting. He was living on the corner. He wasn’t leaving anything over the middle of the plate. When you have an opportunity like that with the bases loaded and guys are on base against a pitcher like that, you try to capitalize.”
By the time Stroman turned the mound over to Daniel Hudson, the former Dodgers reliever who spent spring training with the Angels before being cut, the Angels had taken a 5-0 lead in the fourth inning.
Stroman hadn’t given up five runs all season. He was charged only four because of catcher’s interference during Kole Calhoun’s at-bat to begin the fourth that was the precursor for a bases-loaded situation in which La Stella drew a walk to send Calhoun home. But even those four earned runs were a season high for Stroman.
Pujols reached base in the fifth on an error by third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and padded the Angels’ lead by rumbling around the bases, scoring from first on Calhoun’s subsequent double that was misplayed twice by Toronto right fielder Billy McKinney.
When Pujols finally touched home plate, Calhoun had just pulled into third base on McKinney’s throw from the outfield.
The Angels (14-17) needed nothing more.