The number 91 flashed on the U.S. Cellular Field scoreboard after consecutive fastballs Chris Sale delivered to Mike Trout on Wednesday afternoon.
In the on-deck circle, Trout had watched Sale twice run pitches up to 96 mph against Andrelton Simmons but now Sale was intentionally slowing it down for confusion's sake.
Trout still singled, but the wieldy variation augured the difficulty the Angels faced all game against the tall, angular left-hander with vicious stuff. In Sale's seven innings, only Trout got on base as the Angels drifted to a 2-1 defeat to the Chicago White Sox, their fifth loss in six games.
"As a hitter, it's tough on you, because you visualize a fastball in your head," Trout said. "And if he takes three or four miles off that heater, it comes out a little slower and gets your timing all messed up."
Trout said he first noticed Sale's variation during Cactus League play last month, Sale's fastball clocked as low as 90.7 mph and as high as 97.8. His changeup reached as high as 89 and as low as 82. His slider, as high as 82 and as low as 75. He hit 23 different ticks in all, and the Angels didn't have much of a chance.
"You get one pitch to hit," Trout said. "You miss it, he'll put you in a hole."
The Angels are holed up in a team-wide offensive slump. They scored five runs during their first inning in Chicago on Monday night. Excluding that, they managed only three runs and three extra-base hits in 37 innings.
Right-hander Garrett Richards kept them in Wednesday's game. He struck out six and gave up four hits in 6 1/3 innings. The second of the two runs against him scored because of his own fielding miscue. Austin Jackson bunted to get Alex Avila to third base in the fifth inning, and Richards barehanded it and overthrew C.J. Cron at first base.
Richards said he would not fret about that, or about the Angels' 0-4 record during his starts this season.
"I can only worry about doing one thing and that's pitching, giving us a chance to win every single time I pitch," he said. "Our offense is going to click. It's inevitable."
He said his four walks were his lone objection in his performance. Then he paused. "Whatever," he said. "Walks are a coin flip to me."
His sixth pitch of the day slipped out of his hand, and Tyler Saladino, the White Sox shortstop, whacked it to left for a home run. Richards had intended the 96-mph fastball to be low, below the strike zone, with the count already 0-1. But he let go early, and it ended up at the letters.
He let one more pitch slip when it started to rain in the sixth inning. A fastball to Todd Frazier went to the backstop.
The rain later increased in intensity as the Angels' best chance to tie a score in two days presented itself. After Sale hit Kole Calhoun with a fastball leading off the eighth and left the game, Johnny Giavotella reached on an error and Rafael Ortega pinch-hit with runners on the corners.
White Sox closer David Robertson entered and immediately got the count to 0-2, but Ortega battled to a seventh pitch and grounded it up the middle for a run-scoring single.
Up next, Yunel Escobar grounded out to end the inning. In the ninth, Trout tapped a one-out infield single to third. Frazier slid to corral it, but his rushed throw went past White Sox first baseman Jerry Sands. When Trout noticed, he turned to head to second and slipped on the wet grass. He recovered but Sands' throw beat him to the base.
Trout crouched at the bag for several seconds after he was called out.
Angels Manager Mike Scioscia supported Trout's aggressiveness, noting the importance of reaching second when in need of just one run. He said his center fielder was "out by an eyelash." Trout recognized his mistake.