By the time this new week started, carrying with it the beginnings of what ended Wednesday as a five-game win streak, Angels right-hander Felix Peña sat in front of his Angel Stadium locker and said he had put last week’s no-hitter behind him.
“That’s been paid off,” he said in Spanish, “I can’t linger on it. I need to get ready for my next start.”
Peña, a 29-year-old who since joining the Angels last year had a 4.24 ERA in his first 174 innings, for days had been tugged around for interviews. The seven no-hit innings he threw last Friday on an emotional night dedicated to the memory of late teammate Tyler Skaggs seemed to be all anyone wanted to talk about. He didn’t mind the requests. He was proud of the part he played in creating a moment for his grieving teammates, and an emotional fan base, to rally behind as they started the second half of the season.
Even four days after he laid his SKAGGS 45 jersey on the rubber of the mound, a smile stretched the corners of Peña’s mouth as he recounted all the numerical oddities, and perhaps supernatural occurrences, that accompanied his team’s memorable tribute to Skaggs.
“Too many things happened,” to call it coincidence, he said. “The seven runs in the first inning; we finished with 13 total [July 13 was Skaggs’ birthday]. We threw a no-hitter. There are a lot of things you start to think about and you go, ‘Wow, what happened here?’”
In an 11-2 defeat at the hands of the Houston Astros on Wednesday, the warm memory of that evening faded the second Jose Altuve grabbed hold of Peña’s high 93-mph fastball on the inner edge of the plate and drove it to left for a single with one out in the first inning. Reality sank in as the bottom fell out of the frame. The Astros collected four hits, punctuated by Michael Brantley’s two-run home run on the first pitch to put the Angels in an early 3-0 hole.
Peña had taken to pitching as the Angels’ so-called “bulk guy.” The strategy allowed him to jump into opponents’ batting orders about midway through. The time allowed him to establish his pitches before taking on a team’s top three hitters.
He was not afforded the luxury Wednesday. The Angels’ bullpen was depleted. They refreshed it with a pregame move that brought up Luke Bard. It proved prescient. Bard pitched 2 2/3 innings in relief of Peña, who lasted only 4 2/3 innings in his first start since April 19.
“I didn’t feel like I could throw or I could command my three pitches for strikes,” Peña said. “When you can’t do that, that’s what happens, always. When you can’t command your pitches, they hit you.”
Peña wobbled all evening. He threw first-pitch balls to eight of the first 13 batters he faced. The Astros took advantage of his passiveness, scoring in three straight innings. By the time Bard came in, Peña and the Angels trailed 6-0 and the Astros had collected nine hits. Two more runs were charged to Peña, marking the first time he’d given up eight runs in his major league career. The only other time this season he gave up more than four runs was a 1 2/3-inning appearance on June 5, when he allowed seven.
Peña pitched formidably in the aftermath of that game. Batters hit him at just a .194 clip in his next six outings. He gave up 13 earned runs in 29 2/3 innings.
Peña was encouraged most during that stretch by the development of his offspeed pitches. His changeup, in particular, became a weapon late in Friday’s no-hitter, during which he threw 81 pitches. The Seattle Mariners whiffed at three of the 12 he threw; they put three others in play for outs.
On Wednesday night, the changeup barely helped Peña. Nothing did, really. The resolve that drove him last week seemed to fade as this outing reached its 91-pitch end in the fifth inning. This time, he returned to the clubhouse in low spirits, having crashed back to earth. This time, not even a camera followed him for an interview.
This time, the opponent was too strong, Astros starter Gerrit Cole too effective with his 98-mph fastball for the Angels to offer Pena support. Angels hitters, who entered the night with the lowest whiff rate in baseball, swung and missed at an astonishing 24 pitches. They struck out 11 times in Cole’s seven innings. No other pitcher had racked up more than nine strikeouts against the Angels this season.
“He’s one of the tougher pitchers we face,” said Angels bench coach Josh Paul, who acted as manager in the wake of Brad Ausmus’ one-game suspension. “We face him a lot being in our division. Ideally, you’d like to keep it close as long as you can with him to give yourself a shot. Tonight didn’t work out.”