Mike Trout reminds everyone why he’s an AL MVP contender in Angels’ win
A regular season filled with upheaval, stops and starts and pandemic-induced changes and challenges is winding down with Mike Trout in his usual late-September spot: in the thick of the American League most valuable player race.
The combination of COVID-19, the birth of his son, which took him away from the Angels for four games in late July, the dearth of adrenaline and energy in empty stadiums and an August slump have done little to slow the Angels center fielder.
Trout snapped a tie with a run-scoring single to left field in the eighth inning of Saturday night’s 4-3 victory over the Texas Rangers, keeping the Angels within 31/2 games of Houston for a playoff spot with seven games left.
Angels starter Andrew Heaney found his bearings after three of his first eight pitches were hit for a home run (Leody Taveras), single (Nick Solak) and two-run homer (Rougned Odor, 434 feet). The left-hander blanked the Rangers on three hits and struck out eight over the next 61/3 innings.
Albert Pujols hits his 661st and 662nd career home runs to take over sole possession of fifth place on the all-time home run list in the Angels’ win.
Struggling slugger Shohei Ohtani, making his first start since Sept. 11, hit a solo homer to right in the second, snapping a streak of 61 plate appearances without a homer dating to Aug. 23, and singled and scored on Taylor Ward’s double in the fifth. David Fletcher’s RBI single in the fifth made it 3-3.
Reliever Mike Mayers threw one-two-three eighth and ninth innings for his first save and has retired 32 of the last 35 batters he’s faced.
Trout followed Fletcher’s leadoff walk and Texas first baseman Sherten Apostel’s error on Jared Walsh’s grounder with his game-winning hit. He’s now batting .293 with 16 homers, nine doubles and 43 RBIs on the season.
He entered Saturday with a 1.027 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and was tied with Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu for third place with a 2.4 WAR (wins above replacement), according to FanGraphs.
The two players ahead of Trout, who won three AL MVPs and finished second four times in his first eight seasons, are Angels teammate Anthony Rendon (2.6) and Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez (2.5).
But Trout’s stiffest competition for MVP could come from Abreu (.327, 1.007 OPS, 17 homers, 51 RBIs), White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson (.365, .983 OPS, eight homers, 19 RBIs), Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu (.367, 1.056 OPS, 10 homers, 24 RBIs) and Twins slugger Nelson Cruz (.314, 1.026 OPS, 16 homers, 32 RBIs).
Andrew Heaney ran into some trouble early against the heat-seeking Texas Rangers on Saturday before switching to off-speed throws in the 4-3 win.
Abreu and Anderson should be boosted by their impact on a team that is 34-18 and leading the AL Central after finishing third with a 72-89 record in 2019. The Angels are 23-30, but Trout won MVPs on losing teams in 2016 and 2019.
“It seems like every year they’re saying it’s all about the team’s record — I don’t know,” Trout said Saturday. “Does a shortened season factor in? Maybe. The two guys in Chicago are having unbelievable seasons. They’re fun to watch.”
Trout had a rough 13-game stretch from Aug. 14-25, batting .163 (eight for 49) with a .628 OPS, two homers, one double, nine RBIs, 16 strikeouts and seven walks, dropping his season average to .255.
He rebounded over his next 19 games, batting .358 (24 for 67) with a 1.226 OPS, six homers, seven doubles, 17 RBIs, 14 strikeouts and 19 walks to lift his average to .294 entering Saturday.
“The whole season has been different with no fans, no atmosphere—that’s been the toughest adjustment,” Trout said. “The adrenaline, the atmosphere brings the excitement. You come up in a big spot, there’s [usually] so much crowd noise that can pump you up, get your blood pumping. It’s just been a weird year.”
Angels manager Joe Maddon said Trout, like every player, has had to “create your own energy” before the game. But once the first pitch is thrown, “He heats up,” Maddon said. “Conversationally, during a game, he’s involved in every moment. His talent is prodigious … and he’s a great teammate, always supporting everybody else.”
Trout hasn’t been as dominant as he was in 2019, when he hit .291 with an AL-leading .438 on-base percentage and 1.083 OPS, 45 homers and 104 RBIs, but he has benefited from the presence of Rendon hitting behind him.
Highlights from the Angels’ 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers on Saturday.
Rendon, the former Washington Nationals star who signed a seven-year, $245-million contract in December, entered Saturday with a .283 average, .940 OPS, nine homers, 31 RBIs and more walks (35) than strikeouts (25).
“Getting to know him since he came here, now seeing him play, he just has fun, he doesn’t really stress over anything,” Trout said. “He just goes out there and hits, and it’s pretty remarkable the way he does it.
“He went on a little skid there, I saw him stretching one day and I said, “Hey man, what you got?’ He said, ‘I’m not even hitting today,’ and he went three for four with a homer. I was like, ‘Wow, pretty impressive.’ He just comes to the ballpark and puts up numbers. It’s impressive to see what he can do on a baseball field.”
With Rendon in the lineup, Trout has seen pitches in the strike zone 52.6% of the time according to Baseball Savant, the highest percentage in the six years such data has been available. His average exit velocity of 93.9 mph is the highest it has been in six years.
“Obviously, just having somebody behind you that can hit the ball hard and have good at-bats and do what Anthony does, you definitely see more pitches,” Trout said. “But once I feel locked in up there, I feel I can hit anything.”
Left fielder Justin Upton did not play after taking a 94-mph fastball off the helmet in the seventh inning of Friday night’s game. But Maddon said Upton was “symptom-free” and was being held out as a precaution and because he was batting .077 (one for 13) against Rangers starter Lance Lynn.
Hot-hitting first baseman Jared Walsh started in right field Saturday night, his first big league start in the outfield, but he did play the outfield 85 times in the minor leagues. “The guy we’re facing tonight is really good,” Maddon said before the game. “I’ve always talked about loving pitching and defense, which I do, but I’ve been involved in games like this in the past where sometimes you may have to attempt to sacrifice defense early and then upgrade as the game goes on. And so that’s we’re going to try to do.” Walsh had his franchise-tying streak of 10 games with a hit and an RBI snapped.
Albert Pujols (40 years, 246 days) became the oldest player in Angels history to hit two home runs in a game Friday night. The only other Angels player to have a multi-homer game after age 40 was Reggie Jackson (three times).
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