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Angels’ Andrew Heaney returns to form — again — with confidence-building win

The Angels' Andrew Heaney prepares to throw the ball.
Andrew Heaney threw seven strong innings for the Angels on Thursday.
(Jim Mone / Associated Press)

Andrew Heaney took a long pause and stared toward the distance.

Asked earlier this week if his up-and-down 2021 season was feeling similar to his inconsistent campaigns of years past, the Angels starter wanted to think before answering.

“It feels a little bit similar,” he finally responded. “But in years past, I felt like I haven’t felt like I would go through such a downswing.”

Lately, that reality was becoming hard for the 30-year-old left-hander to bear. He’s always been prone to occasional slumps, evidenced by a career 4.59 ERA. But after giving up 19 runs in 18⅓ innings during his four previous starts this year, he was struggling to figure out how to snap his most recent downward swing.

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“I think I’ve always been a little bit streaky,” he said. “I wish I knew why. And I really wish I wasn’t like that.”

He watched video. He reviewed at-bats. He looked at the shape and movement on his pitches. He evaluated the mindset he was taking with him to the mound.

Still, he couldn’t shake the frustration, or ignore the disappointment.

Angels relievers struggled in 2020, so the front office made a number of changes. The results haven’t been good. “We have to do better,” manager Joe Maddon says.

“Pitching the way I was pitching before, you start to look at a lot of things, question a lot of things, lose a lot of confidence,” he said.

On Thursday night in Minnesota, however, Heaney suddenly started to get it all back.

In the Angels 3-2 win over the Twins at Target field, Heaney surrendered just two runs in a season-high seven-inning outing.

“I just started getting into a better rhythm,” he said. “Hard to explain. Just a mechanical feel for me, and then just getting into a rhythm and throwing balls where they should go.”

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Unlike past outings, he didn’t squander at-bats when he got ahead, striking out seven batters and retiring the side on 13 or fewer pitches four different times.

Unlike past outings, he prevented crooked numbers on the scoreboard, scattering only four hits, two walks and one hit-by-pitch while importantly giving up no home runs.

And, unlike past outings, he avoided a bad start with a scoreless first inning (he previously had a 7.88 ERA in the opening frame), and finished strong by retiring his final 11 batters, completing seven innings for the first time since last September.

It’s something I definitely want to build on and something for my confidence that, frankly, I needed to happen.

Andrew Heaney

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As the start dragged on, and he navigated inning after inning, Heaney started to feel something that had been missing for weeks. His fastball had late life. He retired batters quickly. And each time he returned to the dugout, he repeatedly muttered a reminder to himself.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘You’re a good f—ing player. You’re a good f—ing player.”

Heaney wasn’t the only reason the Angels (47-48) won on Thursday night.

Jack Mayfield hit a three-run home run in the fifth, erasing an early two-run lead for the Twins.

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The Angels’ defense was clutch as well, with Justin Upton — in his return from the injured list — and José Iglesias turning a relay play to throw out a runner at home in the second and Adam Eaton making two key plays in right field in the eighth.

Closer Raisel Iglesias also picked up his 20th save in a perfect ninth inning, sealing the Angels’ first series-opening win in three weeks.

But Heaney’s rebound was perhaps the most important development, the starter finally returning to form at a time the Angels need all the pitching they can get to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.

“This one is extremely nice, not only for us to get a win, [but] for me to get a win, for me to pitch better,” Heaney said. “It’s something I definitely want to build on and something for my confidence that, frankly, I needed to happen. It feels good all the way around. I want to keep that feeling and take it into my next start.”

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Early in the night, it didn’t seem like Heaney was on the verge of a breakthrough. While he escaped the first unscathed, he hit one batter and walked another. In the second inning, only the Upton-Iglesias relay play, which was finished off by catcher Max Stassi’s tag on a collision at the plate, prevented the Twins from taking the lead.

Angels outfielder Brandon Marsh made his major league debut Sunday, going hitless in four at-bats in a 7-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

In the fourth inning, Minnesota finally broke through. Miguel Sanó hit a leadoff double, Trevor Larnach walked on four pitches, then Willians Astudillo drove in one run with a double into right and Gilberto Celestino scored another with a ground ball to third.

After that, however, Heaney found a groove. He got through the fifth inning on just 12 pitches. He struck out all three batters he faced in the sixth. And he induced three straight groundouts in the seventh, strolling back to the dugout for the last time after throwing 102 pitches.

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“[In] the fifth inning, something kicked in,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said of Heaney, adding: “He just kept getting better. Not really complicated. I thought he got more aggressive with the fastball. Had really good ride at home plate. And that’s what they were having a hard time with.”

In other words, it was Heaney at his best, relying on his four-seamer, putting batters away once he got ahead and rediscovering a fiery self-belief after a frustrating several weeks.

“There’s a lot of times that you don’t feel like that and you don’t have that confidence,” he said postgame, adding: “It sounds corny. But seriously, there’s times when you’re not going good when you start doubting, ‘How good am I? Can I get guys out?’

“I hope I’m not the only one, but I can almost promise you there are a lot of other guys that feel that way, even some of the best players in the game. It’s definitely something that, mentally, you’ve got to keep telling yourself positive things, I kept telling myself as I was walking off the mound.”


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