Amid the disappointment of a 3-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Thursday night, the Angels may have gained a badly needed starting pitcher.
Informed Thursday morning that he would start in place of ace Jered Weaver, veteran left-hander Wade LeBlanc went toe to toe with Felix Hernandez, one of the best pitchers in baseball, and held his own.
LeBlanc gave up three hits in 5 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out three and walking none to give the Angels a chance in a game few thought they could win. One day after clinching the American League West title, the Angels rested all of their regulars and started a lineup of reserves against Hernandez.
But LeBlanc threw his sinking fastball and cut-fastball to both sides of the plate, mixed in a few changeups and curves and changed speeds effectively. Of his 72 pitches, 48 were strikes. When he handed the ball to the bullpen, there was no score.
With Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs out with season-ending injuries and Matt Shoemaker sidelined by a left rib-cage strain, his status for the playoffs uncertain, the Angels are down to three healthy starters, Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Hector Santiago.
But LeBlanc could give them a fourth, at least for the final week of the regular season. Manager Mike Scioscia said LeBlanc would “most likely” start again in Oakland on Tuesday night.
“Wade came through,” Scioscia said. “There’s nothing you could fault him on. Everything worked, and all of his pitches played off each other. It was a really good game for Wade.”
LeBlanc got the first crack at replacing Richards but fumbled the opportunity, giving up six runs and seven hits in 3 1/3 innings of a 7-1 loss to Miami on Aug. 25. He was moved to the bullpen and allowed just one run and four hits in 6 1/3 innings of five appearances in which he found a more comfortable delivery. With that came better command and results.
“Everything is good mechanically — that’s the main thing,” LeBlanc said. “When everything starts over the rubber and your body is lined up, pitch execution takes care of itself. I’m also pitching to my strengths rather than trying to force the issue with certain pitches in certain counts.”
LeBlanc, who was backed by superb defensive plays by right fielder Brennan Boesch, left fielder Shawn O’Malley and second baseman Grant Green, wasn’t the least bit fazed when Scioscia called him Thursday morning.
“You know what? That’s the life of a swing man, of a long reliever,” LeBlanc said. “I’ve done it in the past. It’s nothing new. Any time they want to give me the ball, I’m ready for it.”
Hernandez, the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner, gave LeBlanc no chance to win, though, blanking the Angels on three hits over seven innings and striking out 11.
The right-hander, who mixes a 95-mph fastball with a nasty slider, split-fingered fastball and changeup, got a no-decision but lowered his AL-best earned-run average to 2.07. He has 236 strikeouts on the season, a career-high.
“There’s no such thing as a comfortable at-bat against him,” Angels catcher Hank Conger said. “He has some of the nastiest stuff in the league. That’s why they call him the King.
“I think one of the biggest things for him is movement. Everything comes out of that same window, and he’s able to either elevate on you or have that splitter drop off the table.”
Conger accounted for the Angels’ only run with a solo homer off Seattle closer Fernando Rodney in the bottom of the ninth. The Mariners snapped a scoreless tie on Logan Morrison’s three-run homer off Kevin Jepsen in the top of the ninth.
With two outs, Jepsen appeared to have pinch-runner James Jones picked off first, but he bounced his throw past the bag for an error, allowing Jones to take second.
Kyle Seager was intentionally walked, and Morrison belted a changeup over the right-field wall for a homer, only the third one Jepsen has allowed this season.
“He’s out,” Scioscia said, when asked if he thought Jepsen had Jones picked off. “It’s a shame. It was a good move by Jeppy. The throw was a little short-hop. If that throw is anywhere in the air, we’re out of that inning.
“But it got by him, it kept the inning going, and one of the few poor pitches Jeppy made was a changeup to Morrison. He left it right there for him, and he didn’t miss it.”