Column: Angels begin their crash course in adaptation and look for improved pitching

Angels manager Joe Maddon, left, talks with his team before its game against the Athletics on July 24, 2020.
Angels manager Joe Maddon, left, talks with his team before its game against the Athletics on Friday night. The Angels lost 7-3 in 10 innings.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Friday began like most days lately in Joe Maddon’s baseball life, with a 6:30 a.m. wakeup followed by a jolt of what he calls “bullet-proof coffee.”

Then the phone calls came, constant but welcome, from family and friends and Angels owner Arte Moreno, each voice bringing good wishes and celebrating a moment that was more than 40 years in coming.

Before Maddon walked out to the field at the Oakland Coliseum for his first game as the Angels’ manager — he carried an interim tag for 22 games in 1996 and 29 games in 1999 — he detoured through decades of memories. His mind went back to being signed by scout Nick Kamzic in a hotel room in Wichita, Kan., to reporting to the team’s spring training headquarters in Holtville, Calif., then to his first at-bat in Dubuque, Iowa. He remembered becoming the club’s minor-league field coordinator, being told he’d been promoted to the big leagues and then a bench coach, smiling during a Zoom call as he retraced the steps that have taken him, at age 66, back to where his career started.


“There’s so much,” he said. “People see you now and they think that you’re just now. They have no idea what it took to get to now. And so I’m very grateful for a lot of this stuff. That’s where my head’s been.

“To be out with an Angel uniform, the Angel uniform is the most comfortable uniform I could possibly wear and I feel very grateful for that.”

This would be the only day he’d allow himself to be nostalgic, he said, needlessly excusing his lapse into sentiment. His return gave him the right to cast a fond backward glance before he becomes consumed by what figures to be an unforgiving pace in this 60-game, pandemic-shortened season.

Major League Baseball and its players’ union agreed to expand the playoffs to 16 teams for the pandemic-delayed season.

July 23, 2020

“It’s great to have this opportunity to work back here with this group,” said Maddon, who wore an Angels-branded face covering and red hoodie during the game.

This season, the Angels’ 60th, will go quickly. If their pitching isn’t improved, a swift ending will be merciful. Left-hander Andrew Heaney, working under a pitch limit, gave them a solid start with a crisp, two-hit, six-strikeout performance over 4 2/3 innings in their 7-3, 10-inning loss against the A’s on Friday, but there’s no time for pitchers to slowly find their way.

Angels pitcher Andrew Heaney throws against the Athletics in the first inning July 24, 2020.
Angels starter Andrew Heaney, working under a pitch limit, gave up one run and two hits and struck out six over 4 2/3 innings Friday night.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

With decent starting pitching the Angels could grab a spot in the expanded playoff format in effect this season. Even if they must go a few games without big-splash free-agent signee Anthony Rendon, who has an oblique muscle injury, the depth of their offense should compensate.

Two-way standout Shohei Ohtani’s return from Tommy John surgery to be the designated hitter three or four times a week and pitch once a week — according to the initial plan — should be an immense boost. Rendon, Ohtani, three-time most valuable player Mike Trout, Andrelton Simmons and even Albert Pujols, who drove in 93 runs in 131 games last season at age 39, could lift the Angels into third place in the American League West behind Houston and Oakland and get them one of the two extra berths. It’s possible that they’ll challenge Oakland, which is coming off back-to-back 97-win seasons but can’t match the Angels’ offense.

Trout, who has made only one postseason appearance — he was one for 12 as the Angels were swept by Kansas City in the 2014 AL division series — deserves a chance to shine on the national stage.

“It should increase our chances,” Maddon said of the new format. “It’s interesting. Again, this is the year to experiment. It came on rather quickly, so I haven’t had a chance to think about it too much. But I was planning on us making it regardless.

“It creates more interest for more fan bases. It makes sense under the circumstances. It keeps more groups involved longer, especially in the event that somebody gets off poorly, a team should not lose interest because now there’s probably a better chance than there had been of coming back from a bad start…. I think it’s great. This year, I’m all for everything, trying everything. If you’d asked me this question the last couple of years, I might not have been so open, but if we’re looking to grow this game in a way that the people that are running it feel is necessary, I’m in.”


Los Angeles Times Dodgers writer Jorge Castillo and Angels writer Maria Torres break down their respective teams as the coronavirus-shortened season begins.

July 23, 2020

As special as Friday was for Maddon, he was happy to share billing with Pujols, who became the fifth player to make an opening day roster in each of his first 20 major league seasons, joining Pete Rose, Carl Yastrzemski, Eddie Murray and Frank Robinson. Pujols also became the sixth player in Angels history to start nine straight opening day games, trailing Garret Anderson (13), Tim Salmon (12), Brian Downing (11), Darin Erstad (10) and Jim Fregosi (9).

“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some outstanding players. This is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Probably unanimous first ballot Hall of Famer,” Maddon said. “The numbers he’s put up are extraterrestrial kind of numbers. Pretty impressive. Then you get to know him, talk to him. All the stuff he does off the field too.”

And so this unusual and strange sprint began, and with it Maddon’s chance to create triumphant memories in his unlikely return to the place it all began.