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Angels

Loss of Tyler Skaggs tough for Angels on the field as well as off in the second half

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Toronto Blue Jays
Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs delivers during a game against the Toronto Blue Jays on June 18. Skaggs was found dead in a Texas hotel room on July 1.
(Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

Mike Trout is on a tear, making a statement with both bat and glove during what could be a third MVP season. Shohei Ohtani is taking advantage of his batting only campaign, showcasing prodigious power and sparking a lively offense.

But when the Angels return home from the All-Star break Friday to begin a series against the Seattle Mariners, they will still be reeling from the sudden death of a teammate and clubhouse leader. The loss of Tyler Skaggs, who was 27 when he was found unresponsive in his hotel room July 1, will color the remainder of a season in which the Angels are on the outskirts of a playoff chase.

Skaggs was the Angels’ most valuable starter this season, effective enough to account for 1.7 wins above replacement. Rookie Griffin Canning turned in the second-most valuable performance, with a 0.7 WAR in three fewer starts.

The Angels struggled to reach .500 with Skaggs. They labored to stay above the mark once they did. Other teams capitalized: As the Angels went 18-16 from June 1 to July 7, the Oakland Athletics won 21 games and surged into third place in the wild-card standings. The Houston Astros continued to separate themselves from the rest of the American League West and the Texas Rangers maintained their surprising pace.

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The Angels’ task of ending their four-year postseason drought is now more difficult. Although they showed emotional fortitude and rebounded by winning three of four games in the wake of Skaggs’ passing, the Angels begin the second half with a 45-46 record, 12-1/2 games out of first in the division. They also lag behind five teams in the wild-card standings, a race that figures to be their only shot at the playoffs.

“We got hit in the face, we lost one of our brothers, and you have two choices,” said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who sustained a concussion and nose fracture in a home-plate collision Sunday and will be sidelined for an undetermined period. . “You can either lay down and feel sorry for yourself, or you can stand up and do something about it. We’re going to do something about it.”

Making up territory in the playoff hunt will be challenging, but the rest of July might provide the best opportunity to overcome a mediocre first half. The Angels play 13 of their next 19 games against the Seattle Mariners, Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers. Each team is on pace to lose more than 90 games.

But the Angels’ starting pitching, the team’s most prominent weakness before Skaggs’ passing, must stabilize first. Their 5.31 ERA is fourth-highest in the major leagues, worse than the Kansas City Royals and Orioles, two of the three teams that lost more than 100 games a season ago.

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J.C. Ramirez, who was 11-10 in 24 starts in 2017, is in the final stages of Tommy John surgery rehab. A rebound from Matt Harvey, the one-time New York Mets ace who had a 7.50 ERA in 10 starts this season before an upper back strain sent him to the injured list, could be key. Harvey will start Saturday for the Angels for the first time since May 23. He allowed 13 earned runs in 10 innings over three rehab outings but saw a slight uptick in his fastball velocity during his last start.

The bullpen has been overworked but effective and the offense has done its part to help mask the rotation’s ineffectiveness. Ohtani emerged from a languid start to assemble a 1.082 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since June 1. Trout also dominated in that span, his 1.175 OPS leading all batters with more than 80 plate appearances. Outfielder Justin Upton produced 0.3 WAR in his first 14 games off the injured list.

The Angels will be without first-time All-Star Tommy La Stella, who fouled a ball off his shin and fractured his tibia last week, for at least eight weeks. But the emergence of rookie Luis Rengifo, a switch-hitter batting .328 with five doubles and two home runs in his last 20 games, and continued steadiness from David Fletcher should help cushion the blow.

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And the team’s ability to score should help keep the Angels afloat as they solve their struggles on the mound.

Whether it’s enough to push them into contention remains to be seen.

“We still have the possibility of reaching the postseason,” Ohtani told Japanese reporters last week. “The season won’t wait for us. But when the season is over, I would like to take a championship ring to [Skaggs’] grave site.”

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maria.torres@latimes.com

@maria_torres3


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