Jhonathan Diaz makes most of chance as Angels pitch second shutout in a row
Jhonathan Diaz, a 25-year-old left-hander called up by the Angels to make his third big-league start Friday night, thought he had Juan Soto, one of baseball’s most dangerous sluggers, struck out with a full-count fastball in the third inning.
Diaz hopped off the mound and toward the third-base dugout, believing the inning was over. Umpire Chad Whitson called the pitch outside for ball four. Soto, the Washington Nationals star, did not like Diaz’s reaction. Still stinging from an up-and-in fastball earlier in the at-bat, Soto glared at Diaz before heading to first.
“Of course it can,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said, when asked if such a stare-down can be intimidating for a young pitcher. “But if you ask Johnny, I bet he dug it. He’s kind of a tough guy.”
The Washington Nationals have overhauled their roster since Anthony Rendon was on the team, but the Angels standout cherishes his memories with the franchise.
That mettle was on display in the fifth when Diaz struck out Soto with an 82-mph sweeping slider, perhaps his best pitch of a night in which the Venezuelan native threw five scoreless innings, giving up three hits, striking out four and walking four, to lead the Angels to a 3-0 victory in front of 41,923 in Angel Stadium.
Soto was so frustrated by the pitch that he slammed his bat into the ground, shattering it into pieces.
“It was real emotional,” Diaz, speaking through an interpreter, said of his strikeout of Soto. “We looked at each other, made eye contact. That’s the way he plays. I like it. We win.”
The strong effort by Diaz, who pitched through some heavy traffic, helped the AL West-leading Angels improve to 18-10 and extend their win streak to three games.
Oliver Ortega, a hard-throwing right-hander who is carving out more of a high-leverage role in the bullpen, allowed one hit in a scoreless sixth, Ryan Tepera retired the side in order in the seventh, and left-hander Aaron Loup threw a one-two-three eighth that included a whiff of Soto.
Closer Raisel Iglesias retired the side in order with a strikeout in the ninth for his seventh save as the Angels recorded back-to-back shutouts for the first time since July 15-16, 2016, against the Chicago White Sox at home. The Angels ranked second-to-last in the major leagues with four shutouts in 2021. They now have five shutouts this season, the second-most in baseball.
As part of his stadium deal, Angels owner Arte Moreno paid $96 million to Anaheim to fund affordable housing projects elsewhere in Anaheim.
“Our bullpen has been great,” Angels center fielder Mike Trout said. “The whole pitching staff has been fun to play behind.”
Shohei Ohtani drove in a run with a groundout in the first, and Trout pounced on an 0-and-2, 95-mph fastball from Nationals starter Joan Adon in the fifth, lining a bases-loaded double over the head of center fielder Victor Robles for two runs and a 3-0 lead.
“He was just out there to try to throw one more by Mikey, and he got it,” Maddon said. “Obviously, we needed that. I mean, we win via shutout, but 3-0 is a lot different than 1-0, so that was a big at-bat for him.”
The game did not start well for Diaz, whose first pitch, a 93-mph fastball, was smacked off the left-field wall for a double by César Hernández. A one-out walk to Josh Bell put two on, but Diaz got Nelson Cruz to ground into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play. Alcides Escobar tripled with one out in the third, but Diaz struck out Hernandez with an 83-mph changeup and, after walking Soto, got Bell to fly to right. Washington put two on with two outs in the fourth, but Diaz got Robles to pop out to first to end the inning.
Diaz, who went 2-0 with a 1.96 ERA in four starts for triple-A Salt Lake, was hardly overpowering, his four-seam fastball averaging 91.4 mph and topping out at 92.6 mph.
But he kept the Nationals off-balance with an effective five-pitch mix that included an 89-mph sinking fastball, an 81-mph changeup, an 81-mph slider that he often threw to the back foot of right-handed hitters, and 74-mph curve.
“He’s very good, very composed,” Maddon said. “He was not fazed by anything. I like that about him.”
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