The Angels might be headed into a world of trouble.
In the eighth inning of a 3-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Monday night at Angel Stadium, two middle-of-the-order hitters went down.
Shohei Ohtani was hit on the ring finger of his right hand by a Taylor Rogers fastball as he swung and missed to strike out. He crouched beside home plate before being tended to by Angels trainer Adam Nevala.
Moments later, shortstop Andrelton Simmons went rolling down the first base line after he tried to beat out a ground ball. He overextended his stride and his left foot landed just shy of the bag, causing the ankle to twist grotesquely.
X-Rays on both players were negative. Simmons had the more significant injury, a sprained ankle, manager Brad Ausmus said. An MRI on Tuesday will determine the severity, and Ohtani also will be examined further.
Both players were in the training room long after the game ended and were unavailable for comment.
“I feel like Shohei’s, by all indications he should be fine. Quicker timeframe. We don’t know what Simba’s time frame is,” Ausmus said, referring to Simmons. “That’s probably the bigger concern right now. We don’t want to lose either one of them. But it seems like the injury to Simba at this point might be a little bit more dire.”
It was a rough end to a close game, which the Angels tied in the seventh inning on Tommy La Stella’s two-out, RBI single only to see Ty Buttrey, one of their most reliable relievers, give up a two-run, go-ahead homer to Miguel Sano in the eighth.
“That was a pretty creepy inning,” Buttrey said. “That escalated very quickly. Ohtani getting hit and Simba going down and me giving up the [tie], you couldn’t have drawn it up any worse than that. But that’s how this game goes. You hate to see it. Hopefully Shohei is good and Simba is good. Those guys are huge parts of our lineup and great teammates. I hope they recover just fine.”
To that point, the Angels had witnessed a pitching performance that could make an upcoming roster decision tougher than expected. Angels right-hander Felix Pena held one of the American League’s most prolific offenses to one run on four hits in five innings.
It was his fifth time following an opener and entering a game in the second inning, and he continued to look like a pitcher deserving of an opportunity to prove himself. He struck out three and walked one, riding his slider to 10 swings and misses and two called strikes.
“Up through now, thanks to God, things have worked out,” Pena said in Spanish.
But Pena’s position with the Angels might be in jeopardy. Now that left-hander Andrew Heaney is on the cusp of shaking the elbow inflammation that cost him the first quarter of the season, the Angels face a rotation quandary. They can send Griffin Canning, the 23-year-old who has 10 strikeouts per nine innings and is scheduled to make his fifth major league start Friday, back to the triple-A Salt Lake Bees. Alternatively, they could cut bait on veterans or shuffle some bullpen arms and move Pena into a relief role.
Pena was on track to be a long reliever in the majors when the Angels acquired him in October 2017 from the Chicago Cubs. But after beginning last season as a starter with the Bees, Pena found a place in the Angels’ rotation because of injuries. He performed well enough — he had a 4.00 earned-run average, struck out 83 and issued 28 walks in 90 innings as a starter — to merit a rotation tryout in spring training. He earned the fifth spot out of camp for the first time.
However, Pena struggled to pitch efficiently through lineups twice and forced the Angels to subscribe to using an opener — a reliever who starts the game to face the top of the order and, ideally, allow the next pitcher a chance to get through the lineup three times while facing the top three hitters only twice.
The move proved beneficial. Pena has limited batters to a .200 average, walking only two while striking out 26, and yielded eight earned runs in 26-1/3 innings.
“Using an opener in the first inning and allowing him to pitch as long as he can pitch seems to be working pretty well for him,” Ausmus said. “He seems to have taken to it and likes it.”
Pena also alleviated concerns about his stamina. Where he once fatigued beyond 50 pitches, he now can carry velocity on his 91-to-92-mph fastball for at least five innings. His heater even hummed closer to 93 when he pitched seven scoreless innings after an opener May 9 in Detroit.
For a team in desperate need of longevity from its rotation, Pena has been able to provide relief. He’s thrown five or more innings in four of his last five outings. Pena has one minor league option remaining on his contract, so he could be demoted. But his outing Monday, in front of a fraction of the announced crowd of 34,177, might bolster an argument in his favor.
“We’re very comfortable in the role he’s in,” Aumsus said. “I don’t know if there’s any need to change that right this second.”
Starting pitching might be the least of Ausmus’ worries now. In a matter of moments, the Angels (22-25) caught two bad breaks that could cost them stability in the batting order as they begin a stretch where they’ll face American League West rivals in the next five series.