He hopped over the third base line at Angel Stadium, moments before throwing his first major league pitch for a strike down the middle of the plate, and looked like he belonged.
Griffin Canning, the Angels’ top pitching prospect and the first draft pick under general manager Billy Eppler to make his debut, was dominant at times in his first start Tuesday night. The Angels beat the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3, thanks to Brian Goodwin’s tiebreaking eighth-inning home run, but Canning was the main event. He was perfect facing the Blue Jays the first time through the batting order. He ran into some trouble and was charged with three earned runs in 41/3 innings, but he lived up to the hype before departing to a standing ovation.
“He was for the most part unflappable out there from pitch one,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “He was very comfortable with his surroundings. I think he feels like he’s a big league player. For some players it takes time to get comfortable in this environment and other guys feel like he belongs right away. I think he should — and does — feel like he belongs.”
Canning looked like all those things in front of an announced crowd of 38,797, about 300 of whom knew him as a child growing up in south Orange County. Even as he faltered his second time through the Blue Jays’ batting order, Canning never seemed without poise.
“The biggest thing I think about in those moments is taking it one pitch at a time,” Canning said.
He was in the middle of retiring the first 10 batters he faced, wielding a 94-mph fastball that retained its integrity as his outing went on, when his Santa Margarita High coach recalled the moment he recognized Canning’s potential.
In the summer after his freshman year, Canning and Santa Margarita played in a tournament against Joey Gallo’s Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High team. Gallo, then a rising senior on the verge of becoming the Texas Rangers’ second pick of the 2012 draft, hit a screaming line drive off Canning’s inner-half fastball with a wooden bat. The ball climbed and climbed until it left the ballpark for a home run.
Canning, who was barely 15 years old and facing a prospect who’d eventually crack the big leagues and hit 40 home runs in back-to-back seasons before turning 25, didn’t flinch. He brushed it off and got back in a groove.
“He pitches big on big stages,” said Dave Bacani, who led Santa Margarita’s baseball team from 2009 to 2017. “This is obviously the biggest stage he’s pitched on and he’s doing well so far. We’re proud of him.”
So leave it to Canning to put himself in a bases-load jam in the fourth inning of his first start and escape with little damage. He did exactly that, after Freddy Galvis knocked the first Blue Jays hit of the game to right field with one out, advanced to second on a single and moved to third when Canning walked Justin Smoak on five pitches.
After receiving his first mound visit from pitching coach Doug White, Canning threw a slider in the dirt for a wild pitch that allowed Galvis to score easily and give Toronto a 1-0 lead.
But the inning didn’t snowball. Canning got the final outs of the frame on a ground ball and a strikeout, his sixth and final of the game. Then the Angels gave him the lead in the bottom half, on Tommy La Stella’s RBI single and Jonathan Lucroy’s two-run homer.
“I just think he had that mental makeup of a professional baseball player,” said Ryan Torrey, one of Canning’s high school pitching coaches. “He showed up every single day with task in mind and just accomplished it, no matter what adversity or however hard the workout was. He just had that professional mentality that you can’t teach.”
Canning displayed all the tools the Angels praised. His fastball pushed 95 mph, his breaking balls drew a combined nine swings and misses and received five strike calls.
He limited hard contact until he reached the fifth inning. Brandon Drury led off with a 374-foot home run into the right-field seats, trimming the Angels’ lead to 3-2. Two pitches later, Teoscar Hernandez lined a double to left.
Canning retired the next batter, then exited. Hernandez eventually scored on a ground ball induced by reliever Cam Bedrosian, and Canning wouldn’t factor into the decision. Scoreless appearances by Bedrosian, Justin Anderson, Ty Buttrey and Hansel Robles kept the game within reach.
And the 22-year-old Canning did almost exactly what the Angels hoped he would do.
“He’s obviously got a lot of heart,” Mike Trout said. “Obviously in the spring I got to see him, got to face him. He had good stuff. I knew it facing him in the spring, but to see it in person, it’s pretty impressive. His ceiling is going to be unbelievable. He was out there, and he looked like he’s been up here for a while.”
Canning grew up an Angels fan but had never gotten the chance to pitch here until team executives called him last week to tell him his opportunity had arrived. Canning, a UCLA product the Angels selected with their second pick of the 2017 draft, had made his professional debut only 13 months earlier with the Angels’ Class A affiliate.
“I don’t really like to put any expectations on myself in that regard,” Canning said. “I felt like I was taking it one start at a time. Like Billy says, they’ll tap you on the shoulder when you’re ready. I trust them and they thought I was ready for this.”
Canning tore threw the minor leagues at a rapid clip, posting a 3.27 earned-run average and holding batters across all three levels to a .235 batting average in 28 starts. That — and a stop at the team spring training complex last week so he could throw 90 pitches in an outing for the first time in his professional career — was all the Angels needed to deem him worthy of a promotion.
Canning carried that success into his outing Tuesday night.
“He bounced some balls in the bullpen,” said Lucroy, the veteran catcher. “I could tell he was pumped up. He was out there really early. He was out there earlier than me, which never happens. I knew he was pumped up. I talked to him, calmed him down, told him to breathe. The No. 1 thing that gets you at this level is guys get excited. They overthrow. He did that a little tonight. But it’s normal.
“Being blunt and honest, that’s probably one of the best debuts I’ve ever caught. … The kid’s got a bright future.”