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Angels

Angels point to Tyler Skaggs’ spirit and numerical oddities after no-hitter

ANAHEIM, CALIF. - JULY 12: David Palacios, 40, and his daughter Emma Palacios, 15, of Covina take pi
David Palacios, 40, and his daughter Emma, 15, of Covina take pictures of a marker in memory of Tyler Skaggs before the start of the Angels game Friday night.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Saturday would have been Tyler Skaggs’ 28th birthday. Instead, 7/13 will be forever etched in baseball annals as the day after his Angels teammates scored seven runs in the first inning, 13 overall, and pitched a combined no-hitter while all wearing jerseys with “SKAGGS” emblazoned above his number 45.

And when the surreal, some might even say supernatural, 13-0 rout of the Seattle Mariners was over Friday night, the Angels laid their jerseys one by one on the mound at Angel Stadium, careful to place them buttons-down so the stitched-on 45 and block letters of Skaggs’ last name looked up at them.

For the record:
12:10 PM, Jul. 13, 2019 This story said Dee Gordon played for the Florida Marlins. The team is the Miami Marlins.

They had felt his presence all night. From a perfect strike thrown by Skaggs’ mom, Debbie Hetman, in a pregame ceremony that moved the Angels to tears, to defensive replacement Luis Rengifo’s recovery on a ball hit so hard to him at second base that it seemed for a split-second the no-hitter would come undone after 8 2/3 innings, the Angels believed Skaggs was with them in spirit.

So it seemed fitting to hitting coach Jeremy Reed to pay Skaggs back. He relayed a message to Mike Trout, who turned to Justin Upton and said, “Great idea.” The rest followed Trout’s lead, as they have in the 12 days since Skaggs died in a Texas hotel room July 1.

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Then, they stood back to admire what they’d accomplished. Together in 45s, they watched Taylor Cole pitch two no-hit innings and Felix Peña follow with seven. They orchestrated a more memorable tribute than anyone could have imagined.

And in the triumphant moments after Peña pointed to the sky and embraced catcher Dustin Garneau, they cited how unearthly the whole night had been.

Numerical coincidences were plentiful, beginning with his 7/13/1991 birth date, and the Angels pointed them out. After scoring seven runs in the first inning, the Angels collected six more for a total of 13.

The last combined no-hitter thrown in California was on Skaggs’ birth date, when four Baltimore Orioles combined to shut out the Oakland Athletics on July 13, 1991. The Angels’ no-hitter Friday was the 11th in franchise history; Skaggs wore No. 11 at Santa Monica High.

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“You can’t make this stuff up,” Trout said. “He was definitely looking over us tonight.”

“That was nuts,” said Garneau, who first met Skaggs 10 years ago when the precocious left-hander made an official visit to Cal State Fullerton, the college to which he had committed to play before the Angels drafted him 40th overall in 2009.

“No matter what your beliefs are, what you believe in,” said rookie third baseman Matt Thaiss, whose dive to stifle a groundball hit toward the shortstop hole kept the no-hitter intact in the sixth inning, “there was someone helping out tonight.”

The tragic loss of Skaggs will hang over the Angels the rest of the season. It might even color the rest of some careers, Trout said, referring to himself. But heroics rose from the tragedy.

Skaggs’ mother, the longtime Santa Monica High softball coach who pushed her son to practice his vaunted curveball and sometimes caught his bullpen sessions and imbued him with her own strong will, drew his initials into the dirt on the Angel Stadium mound before throwing the ceremonial first pitch. She stood up straight, unfurled a pitch in the middle of the strike zone caught by Skaggs’ close friend Andrew Heaney and glanced skyward.

Minutes later, Cole crouched behind the mound and placed his hand on the 45 painted there by the grounds crew. He proceeded to throw two perfect innings on 22 pitches.

“She went out there and threw an absolute perfect pitch,” Cole said of Debbie. “It couldn’t have been better. … It set the tone for the rest of the way.”

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Between Cole’s innings, Trout clobbered a first-pitch fastball from Mariners starter Mike Leake 454 feet for a two-run homer. After an unusually long 28-second trot around the bases, he gazed up at the suite behind home plate that housed Skaggs’ mother, wife, Carli, stepfather, Dan and stepbrother Garret and nodded. Trout came up a second time in the inning and drilled a double for two more runs. He finished with six RBIs.

“It was pretty incredible,” said Trout, who has swung at only 16% of the first pitches he has seen this season. “He’s watching over everybody and he wants everybody to do good. [David Fletcher] had a great at-bat [ahead of me] and hit a double. I got a good pitch to hit and it went out.”

That it was Peña, who threw 81 pitches and struck out six, and Cole who assembled the masterpiece was particularly unlikely. Cole, 29, has less than a year of major league service and has shuttled between triple-A and the Angels all season. Peña had struggled so often to maintain stamina in his outings that the Angels chose in April to ease him into games by opening his appearances with an inning or two from relief pitchers.

Peña’s explanation for his performance mirrored his gesture of pointing skyward after the last out. “We now have an angel protecting us from above,” he said in Spanish.

Don’t count Dee Gordon among those who might be skeptical of spiritual forces at work. The Mariners second baseman lived through a similar situation nearly three years ago when he played for the Miami Marlins and star pitcher Jose Fernandez died in a boating accident. Gordon led off the first game after the tragedy with a home run, and he wept as he rounded the bases. On Friday, he absorbed the Angels’ performance in awe.

“I got one thing to say, and I said it three years ago, and I’m going be done with it,” Gordon said. “If you don’t believe in God, you might want to start. I said it three years ago when I hit the homer for Jose. They had a no-hitter today. Y’all better start. That’s all I got.”

When the game was over, Angels closer Hansel Robles retrieved a canvas painting from a fan who stood behind the third-base dugout, and deliberately placed it on the rubber Skaggs so loved to pitch from. As he stepped back, Skaggs’ likeness, drawn in front of a background of the cornfield from the film “Field of Dreams,” waved at Robles with his glove.

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The tributes to Skaggs — from the shrine started outside Angel Stadium by fans to the remembrances of Skaggs around the ballpark — won’t erase the pain of his death. Neither will the “We’re nasty” decal on the clubhouse wall reminding the players of Skaggs’ post-win slogan or the suspended-in-action state of Skaggs’ locker, where the pitcher left socks hanging on a hook, discarded gum wrapper and one of his black gloves featuring red stitching.

But for at least one evening, the Angels replaced their grief with joy. They placed the game ball on a shelf in the locker and created a new memory: The night they all wore Skaggs’ jersey to honor him and his family and produced a no-hitter.

“It’s probably more just emotionally therapeutic,” Heaney said. “I think everybody after the game, we’re running out on the field and everybody’s celebrating. Three hours earlier — don’t know about anybody else, but I had tears in my eyes. You’re sort of reliving your bad memories, bad thoughts.

“Just for tonight and maybe moving forward, you kind of change your mindset from when you think about him, you’re thinking about the loss of a friend, of a teammate, whatever it may be. But hopefully it can be a little bit more of when you think of him, you think of his jersey, you think of his name, and it brings back positive memories.”

maria.torres@latimes.com

@maria_torres3


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