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Column: Angels’ no-hitter tribute to Tyler Skaggs is an absolute gem

Tyler Skaggs’ shoes were lined up neatly in his locker. Casual shirts hanging on the rod were pushed to the left, his white pants and red batting practice top pushed over to the right. His glove was on the shelf, waiting to mold itself around his hand. His chair faced sideways, ready for him to plop down and chat with anyone who wandered past.

At any moment, it seemed, Skaggs would burst into the clubhouse at Angel Stadium on Friday and bring his usual upbeat energy. Instead, his teammates and Angel fans pushed themselves through a pregame ceremony that honored his too-brief life, which ended July 1 when he was found dead in the team’s hotel in Southlake, Texas, due to undisclosed causes. Results of an autopsy are expected to be released in October.

The Angels’ raw, aching wounds were torn open Friday, their first home game since his death, but what could have been a sorrowful night had a wondrous ending almost too surreal to be believed. After Taylor Cole and Felix Pena combined to pitch a no-hitter in a 13-0 rout of the Seattle Mariners, Angels players — who had worn Skaggs’ No. 45 jersey in tribute for the game — stripped off those jerseys and placed them neatly on the pitcher’s mound. It was stunning and unscripted and all the more beautiful for being from the heart.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Mike Trout, who drove in six runs in a performance the team dedicated to Skaggs. “We score seven runs in the first and end it with 13. Tyler’s birthday is 7/13. We had 13 runs, 13 hits.”

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Manager Brad Ausmus called the game the most special moment he had been a part of on the field in 25 years. “You feel like it’s partly Skaggsy’s no-hitter,” he said at the end of an emotionally exhausting and unforgettable night. “We certainly felt early on those emotions were lifting us up. Tyler was lifting us up.”

Ausmus wasn’t sure how players would handle the pregame ceremony or the flood of emotions. He was struggling himself. “It’s kind of unreal at times that he is no longer here,” Ausmus said.

For Andrew Heaney, one of Skaggs’ closest friends, the emotional range from the respectful ceremony to the postgame glee was unfathomable. “Everybody was running out on the field and celebrating,” he said, “and three hours earlier I had tears in my eyes and you’re sort of reliving your bad moments and thoughts.”

A Skaggs jersey was displayed in the dugout Friday and will accompany the Angels the rest of this suddenly solemn season. His locker will remain untouched at home. As it should be.

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“Nobody asked me about it. It’s the natural thing to do,” said general manager Billy Eppler.

Work has been no refuge for Eppler. The depth chart he habitually updates has sat unopened, and his conversations often wander. “I think in some respects sometimes keeping busy can kind of help. I don’t really know if that’s the right way to go about it because you do need to grieve,” Eppler said. “Everybody has those moments.”

Outside the stadium, on the pitcher’s mound at the brick plaza entrance, the tribute fans had created when they first learned of his death grew in size and variety during the day. Caps and baseball cards that had faded in the sun were joined by paper-wrapped bouquets of fresh red roses, scrawled notes and bright new red caps with messages written on the bill. Memorial candles weighted down slips of paper that praised Skaggs’ kindness in throwing a ball to the letter writer and to lament that Skaggs was “just starting to do wonderful things.”

Fans paused as they walked from the parking lot to the entrance gate, adding to the pile or takings photos of its haphazard glory.

Sadly, fans had practice at this: They did the same for pitcher Nick Adenhart, who was killed with two friends in 2009 when the car in which they were riding was struck by a drunk driver. Having to offer one such tribute was horrible. Having to do it twice was unthinkable, but they came together respectfully to honor another young life that ended too soon.

Inside the stadium, Heaney and Trout carried out a framed Skaggs jersey on an easel and deposited it behind the mound, and a 45-second moment of silence was observed. Skaggs’ mother, Debbie, used her index finger to etch her son’s initials in the dirt before she threw a first-pitch strike to Heaney. Trout, who had worn Skaggs’ No. 45 in the All- Star game, hit a home run in his first at-bat that was measured at 454 — yes, 45 again — feet. As Trout trotted around the bases he appeared to look up at the suite where Skaggs’ mother, wife Carli, stepfather and stepbrother were watching.

Before the game infielder Zack Cozart, who’s scheduled to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery next week, thought back to hanging out with Skaggs the night before Skaggs died. Their conversation was unremarkable, and there was no reason to think they wouldn’t pick it up the next day or next week. “Stuff like that kind of haunts me because it’s so sudden and tragic. It was just, like everybody’s talked about, he runs the music. Ran the music on the team,” Cozart said, correcting his instinctive use of the present tense.

“We’re always putting in requests to him, for him to play the music and stuff that the guys want to listen to on the bus. It was cowboy weekend. Seeing him, I can just picture him in his get-up and stuff. Knowing that’s the last time I saw him, it’s tough.”

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The Angels have adopted one of Skaggs’ favorite catchphrases, “We’re nasty,” as their unofficial motto. They will remember him as funny, a good teammate, and a constant companion.

“I’ll always have good memories of Tyler,” Cozart said. “From a baseball perspective, being here hasn’t — the injury and everything — hasn’t been great. But I’m so grateful I got to play with him and be a part of this team with him.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen


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