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Angels starters hope their airborne huddle sparks a turnaround

Angels starters hope their airborne huddle sparks a turnaround
Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs watches from the bench during a game against the Detroit Tigers on May 8. Starting pitching has been a weak spot for the Angels this season. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

En route from Minneapolis to Long Beach, the Angels’ quintet of starters huddled together on the team’s chartered plane Wednesday evening for a heart to heart. They aired grievances, dissected their starts and puzzled over ways to get their rotation on track.

For all the progress the Angels bullpen has made this season, pitching with the seventh-best reliever earned-run average in baseball despite often entering games before the sixth inning, the rotation has taken a step back. Starters have labored early. They have ratcheted up pitch counts while facing an opponents’ lineup a second time.

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“We kind of have been a not-so-bright spot of the team,” left-hander Tyler Skaggs said. “We’ve had bright spots, but we’ve also had a lot of blunders. It’s just frustrating because all of us have been in the big leagues for a little bit. We know what it takes to have success.”

So the Angels dedicated one of their customary meetings to brainstorming a way out of the funk. They decided to lend each other more support.

“Watch everybody’s bullpens to see what everybody is working on,” Skaggs said. “Sit down during the game and talk about the team that we’re facing and how we’re gonna attack them and different things like that.”

During an 11-game, four-city trip, only Felix Pena threw seven innings after an opener took care of the first inning. The remainder of the rotation struggled to get past the fifth.

The results followed an early trend. When the Angels haven’t deployed a reliever to pitch only the first inning of a game, which they’ve done four times for Pena and twice for current triple-A starter Jaime Barria, starters have pitched 4.8 innings on average. Angels starters averaged nearly five innings per outing last season.

“I don’t think any of us are pitching the way we want,” said veteran Trevor Cahill, who has allowed a majors-leading 14 home runs in 44 this season after surrendering only eight in 110 innings last year.

Relying so heavily on a relief corps, which carried a 3.76 ERA and a hefty 9.81 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate through 44 games, is a dangerous gamble. Overworking relievers early can compromise teams’ pitching depth charts when it comes time for a playoff push.

So the Angels’ rotation must lock in, if for no other reason than to spare their teammates down the stretch.

The teams the Angels figure to compete against for a shot at a wild card berth, such as the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, see their starters average at least 5.6 innings per outing. The Houston Astros, the Angels’ division rival, entered Saturday ranked second behind the Dodgers in innings pitched by starters.

The airborne conversation may already be taking hold. In a 5-2 win over Kansas City on Friday, Matt Harvey pitched into the sixth inning for the first time since late April. In the Angels’ 6-3 win Saturday, rookie Griffin Canning threw 79 pitches through six innings and pitched into the seventh for the first time in his professional career, which only began in April 2018.

“Just figure out how to get deeper in the game and keep the bullpen from coming in so early,” Harvey said. “It’s a long season. Keep using these guys this early it’s gonna be tough.”

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