One year ago this month, the Angels’ Matt Shoemaker transformed himself from one of the worst pitchers in baseball into one of the best. His was a turnaround so unexpected, so lacking in explanation and so massive, it confused the entire sport.
Because of that, and because of the circumstances surrounding his initial emergence at age 27 in 2014, he will always foster hope when he produces a start like he did in the Angels’ 7-0 shutout of Detroit on Friday night at Angel Stadium. It forces the question: Is the great Shoemaker back?
If that answer becomes affirmative in the coming weeks, the moment he returned will be clear. He loaded the bases without an out in the second inning, then became unhittable, pounding the bottom of the strike zone with splitter after splitter. He attributed his success to increased intent.
From that moment forward, Shoemaker retired 15 of the 16 batters he faced and struck out six of them. Miguel Cabrera was the only Tiger to reach base, and he did so with a harmless two-out single.
“That looks like Shoe when he’s on,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
From May 21 to July 22 last year, Shoemaker was on for every start. He logged a superb 2.39 earned-run average over one dozen outings, striking out 93 batters while walking only 10. Because he had carried an awful 9.12 ERA through his first six starts and his performance varied throughout 2014 and 2015, rival talent evaluators were unsure what to make of it.
After July 22, he became a more conventional pitcher until a line drive to his head ended his season on Sept. 4. There was success, and there was failure. He was serviceable, but no more than that. And, after recovering from brain surgery, Shoemaker entered Friday night with a 5.21 ERA through seven starts this season, teetering on the border between serviceable and bad.
Even now, those two months last year remain a constant frame of reference. Scioscia cited the run before the game, saying he hoped Shoemaker could recapture it. Asked what went right Friday night, Shoemaker used the same ambiguously powerful word he did to explain himself last summer: intent.
He was asked where that intent went earlier this season.
“I wish I knew the answer to why we get away from that as players,” he said. “Me, especially. There’s no reason. Sometimes, we just go about our business being passive. It’s tough to pinpoint, but the more you’re aggressive, the more you have the intent.
“I just like that word, intent. That’s why I keep using it.”
For the night, Shoemaker struck out seven and allowed only four baserunners. He had thrown 94 pitches through six innings, but the Angels already led by five. So Scioscia pulled him in favor of Blake Parker and also received scoreless relief from veteran David Hernandez and rookie Keynan Middleton.
The Angels, too, loaded the bases without an out in the second inning and did little with it. But they managed one run, to tack on to Luis Valbuena’s solo shot that began that inning. They added a run in the fourth, on a single and double interspersed with groundouts, a run in the fifth on two singles and an error, and a run in the sixth on a double, a bunt and a single.
Well-paid Tigers starter Jordan Zimmermann, not long ago a fringe ace, has this season proven incapable of lasting deep into games. The Angels kept that going, punishing him for 10 hits and three walks in 5 1/3 innings while striking out just twice. They did it again against well-paid Tigers reliever Anibal Sanchez in the eighth, collecting three hits and two runs on Mike Trout’s 430-foot shot to center field.
Trout nearly finished 0 for 4 for the second consecutive night, since his extended absence because of a tight left hamstring. He had not gone 0 for 4 on consecutive days since the first two games of 2016, but he avoided that by clobbering a two-run home run with two outs in the Angels’ half of the eighth.
The Angels (18-20) had not won a game by more than five runs all season, so Friday counted as a clobbering, too.