The shock of being pelted with ice-cold liquid has not gotten any easier for Matt Thaiss to handle. Hitting for power in the major leagues, however, became a little simpler for the Angels rookie on Sunday.
Thaiss crushed a walk-off homer in the Angels’ 5-4 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. It was a no-doubter, the ball cracking off the bat as soon as he made contact with Mychal Givens’ center-cut fastball. When it landed 394 feet later, the Angels stormed out of their dugout to meet Thaiss at the plate with heavy pats and celebratory squirts of their beverages.
The festivity was a welcome change of pace. Since being called up in the wake of Tyler Skaggs’ July 1 death, Thaiss has had a tough go at the plate. He entered Sunday with a .152 average and .607 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 11 games. He had begun to cut back his strikeout rate but was still trying to find a groove.
Thaiss, the Angels’ top pick of the 2016 draft out of the University of Virginia, hit his first major league home run at Angel Stadium on July 14. That one also won the Angels a game.
But the two home runs he hit Sunday seemed to carry more weight.
“I don’t know if I would’ve gotten that pitch three years ago,” he said. “It’s just a testament to these guys, how much they know and how much they work.”
He was referring to hitting coaches Shawn Wooten and Jeremy Reed. When they were still minor league coordinators last year, they helped Thaiss overhaul his swing in spring training. The changes improved his bat path and kept his barrel in the strike zone longer, maximizing damage.
It has taken time for him to transfer that success to the major leagues. And it will continue to.
For now, Thaiss will take comfort in this: He fell behind 0-and-2 but worked the count full in the ninth inning. He eventually launched the seventh pitch so high it hurtled 125 feet into the air, 45 feet higher than the first home run he hit Sunday for a 2-0 lead in the second, before dropping.
Thaiss’ second home run of the game was his third of the Angels’ disappointing series against the Orioles. It lifted some of the gloom that set in after dropping three of four games.
“It’s definitely great to get a win,” Thaiss said. “You want to get a win every day. Hopefully we can propel this into tomorrow.”
The Angels need some momentum. The high of sweeping the Dodgers, the best team in the National League, did not sustain the Angels as they returned home to face the Orioles. Their two most effective relievers stumbled in the eighth and ninth innings of a nearly 6 1/2-hour game Thursday. Their emergency starter gave up seven runs the next night. A rally fell short, extending their losing streak against one of the worst teams in the major leagues to three on Saturday.
The only thing they had going for them was the equally topsy-turvy series the Oakland Athletics played with the Texas Rangers. Oakland beat Texas on Sunday to remain five games ahead of the Angels in the wild-card standings. The Angels were four games behind after beating the Dodgers, so they lost minimal ground.
“It seems like that 16-inning game kind of sucked all of the energy out of us,” said Albert Pujols, whose 650th career home run scored two to tie the game 4-4 in the sixth. “But we bounced back.”
The Angels almost didn’t. The threat of misfortune reared its head when Angels starter Felix Pena’s right thumb bled so heavily he couldn’t stanch the bleeding by wiping it on his uniform or on the grass.
But Pena, who has dealt with a similar cut multiple times, returned moments later with an approved substance on his thumb. He got the final out of the second inning and made it through five, giving up three hits but also walking three on 84 pitches. He gave up four runs. Only one was earned because three runs scored in the fifth after he made a fielding error on a two-out comebacker.
Pena’s performance, combined with scoreless multi-inning outings from Luke Bard and Taylor Cole, saved Ausmus from further depleting his overworked bullpen.
“That would’ve been a big problem,” Ausmus said.
The trade deadline is three days away. The Angels’ approach to it has not changed: They will continue to search for controllable assets who can help the team beyond this season.
But a series victory over the Orioles might have helped the Angels (55-52) better determine their path ahead of the final two months of the season. Now they must decide how seriously to take their wild-card contention without the benefit of the 57-win cushion they could have had if they had won the 16-inning game and completed a late rally Saturday night.
All they can do now is wait on the front office to make a potential move to shore up pitching.
“We needed a win and a walk-off definitely helps,” Ausmus said. “We could barely afford to go a few more innings. Our relievers are about as taxed as they’re going to get at any point in a season. So it ended up being a huge home run, not because it’s a walk-off win, but because it saved our pitchers having to throw another inning or two.”