One night after clinching the American League West title, the Angels scratched Jered Weaver from his Thursday start against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, opting to go with left-hander Wade LeBlanc, instead.
The Angels also have an open spot on Saturday because Matt Shoemaker is nursing a strained left oblique. Weaver could presumably fill that spot, then start on five days’ rest in the last Friday of the regular season – against the Mariners at Safeco Field – and then be on five days’ rest again for Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Thursday, Oct. 2.
LeBlanc, 30, has gone 20-33 with a 4.60 ERA while accumulating 434 innings in the big leagues from 2008-14. With the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate this season, he posted a 4.43 ERA, a 1.45 WHIP and a 2.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 128 innings.
Here’s what several members of the Angels had to say after clinching the American League West on Wednesday night …
Leadoff man Kole Calhoun, on popping the first bottle of champagne after the A’s lost: “I was more nervous to pop that first bottle of champagne than I was to play baseball.”
Catcher Hank Conger, on watching the game from the clubhouse: “They came back that ninth inning, and everybody was like, ‘Don’t jinx anything, don’t pop anything yet.’ As soon as they made that last out, that groundball, everyone erupted, man. Everybody was hugging each other, champagne was flowing everywhere, man, it was unbelievable.”
President John Carpino, on the fans sticking around to watch: “It’s so special. It’s so special. Look at these people. It’s 11:15 and the game has been over for an hour and a half. Angels fans have a lot of passion.”
Third baseman David Freese, on battling adversity: “You look at every team, up and down the league, and every team goes through adversity, things like that. This group just keeps plugging away. It shows. To win a division like this, it’s unbelievable. What a great group.”
Ace Jered Weaver, on coming out and seeing the fans: “Indescribable, really. This is the only reason why they’re here; they want to see us win. It’s been long overdue. Hopefully we can make a good push here in the postseason.”
Owner Arte Moreno, on his favorite part about the team: “There’s probably not one sentence you can say. They all love each other, they all like each other, they have fun together, and we have a really great mix of veterans, and we have a lot of young people. People were questioning how many young people we have in the organization, but just a lot of young guys stepped up this year.”
Manager Mike Scioscia, on returning to the playoffs after a four-year absence: “It feels great. We had gotten close, but we won our division, and we couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”
Center fielder Mike Trout, on playing in the postseason: “I’m just going to go out there, play my game and help my team win. I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself. I know the atmosphere is going to be awesome, and it’s going to be fun for sure.”
First baseman Albert Pujols, on the group: “Great chemistry. Like I’ve said before, you don’t just win with one or two guys. It takes 25 guys for us to accomplish our goals. We have a great group of guys, starting in Spring Training. I’ve been saying it all year long. And we believe in each other. We’re picking each other up.”
Starter C.J. Wilson, on his start: “It’s good. It’s what I need to do. If we’re going to win, I need to pitch like that.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto, on what it took to turn it all around: “It’s just a thrill. Mike and the staff had a great year. They did an unbelievable job, kept everybody together and cohesive. Obviously we made some changes along the way, but most importantly it was the character and the makeup of the guys. When the boat left the dock this spring, that’s what we talked so much about, and that’s what these guys did. They really did. They bound together. Very proud of them.”
Matt Shoemaker sat in his locker early Wednesday afternoon with a giant ice pack bandaged along his left side, feeling slightly better about his left oblique strain but still unsure on his timeline.
“I’m still a little sore,” Shoemaker said, “but it feels better than yesterday, which they said is really positive. So I’ll just keep doing everything I can to knock it out quickly.”
The only thing the Angels know right now is that Shoemaker will not make his next scheduled start on Saturday. Angels manager Mike Scioscia wouldn’t say who will take Shoemaker’s spot, but did confirm that it’ll be someone currently in his clubhouse — eliminating right-hander Drew Rucinski and providing a strong indication that it’ll be lefty Wade LeBlanc.
That hardly matters, though.
The Angels may have already wrapped up the division by then, and bigger goals lie ahead. They need Shoemaker for the American League Division Series of early October, and nobody knows if he’ll be ready by then.
“We’re not going to know,” Scioscia said. “I guess it’s always encouraging when he comes in and feels a little better as opposed to this thing going in another direction, but there are a lot of hurdles that Matt’s going to have to cross before he’s out there pitching again, and we’re not going to have that answer in 24, 48 hours. We’re not. It’s going to take time. It’s still open-ended, and we’ll keep our fingers crossed.”
A couple of other notes …
- Josh Hamilton was out of the lineup on Wednesday, one day after he made his return after an 11-game absence because of stiffness in his right shoulder. Scioscia said it was a “matchup” situation, with the Mariners starting lefty James Paxton. Hamilton should return on Thursday, against Felix Hernandez, and will start at designated hitter. There’s still no date for when he can get into defense.
- The Angels’ magic number is two, as you probably already know. But clinching a division title could turn into an awkward scenario. If they win, they could be waiting on the A’s game to finish up. Or, even worse, they could find out they clinched after the A’s lose on Thursday, which would take place before their game even begins. If that’s the case, they’d celebrate postgame, win or lose.
Lineup (Mariners lineup here) …
Kole Calhoun, RF
Mike Trout, CF
Albert Pujols, DH
Howie Kendrick, 2B
David Freese, 3B
Erick Aybar, SS
Chris Iannetta, C
C.J. Cron, 1B
Collin Cowgill, LF
SP: LH Paxton (6-2, 1.83 ERA)
Tuesday’s MRI revealed what Matt Shoemaker said was a “very mild” strain in his left oblique, an injury that occurred while facing his final hitter in 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the Mariners on Monday. Angels manager Mike Scioscia said Shoemaker will miss his next scheduled start on Saturday, with yet another bullpen game likely taking place.
Everything else, including Shoemaker’s availability for the postseason, is up in the air.
“The good thing about it is they said it’s mild, so we’re going to literally take it day-by-day,” Shoemaker said. “It’s all by feel. I feel better than I did yesterday, which is a good thing. It’s just soreness, which is to be expected.”
Scioscia isn’t addressing any questions about the Angels in the playoffs because, in his mind, they haven’t clinched a postseason berth until they nail down the American League West title and thus avoid a do-or-die Wild Card game (the Angels’ magic number is three heading into Tuesday). Asked if he’s at least been assured that he can be ready to pitch in the playoffs, Shoemaker said: “Very optimistically, yeah. There’s not been one thing set in stone that says you’re going to be ready in one week, you’re going to be ready in two weeks. There’s none of that. I’m going to show up tomorrow, do more treatment and see how it feels. So, we’ll know something each day.”
The Angels’ standing allows them to rest Shoemaker as long as possible, and they can back him up as deep as Game 4 of the AL Division Series, which would be slated for Oct. 6. Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Hector Santiago would start the first three games.
Shoemaker suffered the injury while throwing a couple of sliders to Mariners catcher Humberto Quintero with two outs in the eighth inning at Angel Stadium on Monday, ultimately forcing him into an RBI groundout and then exiting with 96 pitches under his belt. The 27-year-old rookie, now 16-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 136 innings, only feels the oblique injury when he does “abnormal movements,” and was encouraged by the fact he already feels better than he did on Monday night.
“The news,” Scioscia said, “could’ve been much worse.”
But oblique strains are tricky. Their time frames can vary, and sometimes, when players think they’ve fully recovered from them, they creep back up. Shoemaker will continue to get treatment and right now, Scioscia said, “it’s open-ended” as to when he can pick up a baseball again.
“You never know where these things go with pitchers,” Scioscia said. “Like hamstring injuries, they have a life of their own, can go a lot of different ways. But Matt does feel that there’s not that much discomfort today. We’ll monitor it these next few days and see where it goes.”
The Angels have already lost two key starters in Garrett Richards (left knee surgery) and Tyler Skaggs (Tommy John surgery) since the start of August, and don’t have a fifth starter to take the ball on the days Richards’ spot comes up (reliever Cory Rasmus will start in his place for the fourth straight time, with Scioscia hopeful of getting the usual three to four innings).
Shoemaker’s absence would be crippling in October.
“Unfortunately, right now, you’re talking about three-fifths of your rotation you’re depending a lot on that are out,” Scioscia said. “But you have to move forward, you have to keep pitching, you have to keep getting outs, and we’re confident we will. It just might be a little bit unconventional right now how we do so.”
Additional injury notes …
- After missing the last 11 games with stiffness near his right shoulder, Josh Hamilton returned to the Angels lineup on Tuesday, batting sixth and serving as the designated hitter. The 33-year-old had what Scioscia hoped was a “breakthrough” workout on Monday, taking batting practice on the field and running the bases. He planned to return on Wednesday, but Scioscia said he “felt great after working in the cage.”
- Albert Pujols exited Monday’s game in the third inning because of a cramp in his left hamstring, but was right back in the lineup and starting at first base the following day. “Albert is adamant that there’s no pull,” Scioscia said. “The medical staff feels there’s nothing there but a cramp that, really, was gone after the game. We just wanted to err on the side of caution last night. We’ll monitor him in pregame closely today, but right now he feels good to go.”
Kole Calhoun, RF
Mike Trout, CF
Howie Kendrick, 2B
David Freese, 3B
Erick Aybar, SS
Chris Iannetta, C
Collin Cowgill, LF
SP: RH Rasmus (3-1, 2.80 ERA)
Albert Pujols lined a three-run double against Mariners starter Hisashi Iwakuma on Monday, but hobbled into second base and came right out of the game with what the Angels later deemed a cramp in his left hamstring.
Facing an 0-2 count, with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the third, Pujols fouled off four straight pitches before lining a low splitter over the head of Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager, giving the Angels a 3-0 lead. But the 34-year-old limped into second, was checked on by the Angels’ training staff and then was removed from the game (video here).
The unusually warm weather – game-time temperatures were 91 degrees – could’ve forced Pujols’ muscles to tighten up. Pujols now has 1,595 career RBIs – and 97 on the season – to tie him with Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt for 35th on the all-time list.
Hamilton, out since Sept. 4 with stiffness that began in his right AC joint and moved to the area around his trapezius muscle, could return to the Angels’ lineup as soon as Wednesday.
“Hopefully this is a breakthrough day for him as far as his health,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “His workout was incredible.”
Hamilton took swings off the tee in the batting cage, then three rounds of early BP on the field. There was “no pain, no soreness, just a little tightness,” Hamilton said.
“If I do what I did today tomorrow,” Hamilton added, “and you come back the next day feeling like I came in today, then I wouldn’t see a problem with at least DHing the first couple of games. I hadn’t picked up a glove since Texas because I hit in Texas [on Tuesday], it tightened up a little bit and I started throwing and just the movement of the glove fired it up. That’ll be something to work in here in the next couple of days.”
Hamilton has taken two rounds of cortisone shots and eight days ago received some trigger-point injections to relieve some of the knots in his muscle. Lately, though, they’ve backed up on a lot of the treatment to “let the body try to heal itself,” Hamilton said.
The 33-year-old — batting .263 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs in 88 games — made a link to 2010, when he missed 24 games with a rib injury and didn’t return until the start of October, playing three games against the Angels and then finding his timing again in the postseason.
“I talked to Scioscia about, even before this injury, kind of having the same approach of Spring Training — have good at-bats, see pitches, barrel balls up,” Hamilton said. “During the season, you kind of get caught up in the numbers aspect of things. I’m at that point in the season now that I’m coming back and it’s going to be like Spring Training.”
Hamilton won’t bat cleanup when he returns, with Scioscia saying he’ll “most likely get in the lineup in a spot where he can get some at-bats without carrying the burden of hitting in the middle of the lineup.” The question is whether Hamilton will be the cleanup hitter once the postseason begins.
That’ll depend on how he looks over these next couple weeks.
“At some point,” Scioscia said, “we know our lineup needs him in the middle.”
Here’s the lefty-stacked lineup against Mariners righty Hisashi Iwakuma, who’s 5-0 with a 1.64 ERA in 49 1/3 career innings against the Angels (Mariners lineup). With a win, the Angels clinch a playoff berth …
Kole Calhoun, RF
Mike Trout, CF
Albert Pujols, 1B
Howie Kendrick, 2B
Erick Aybar, SS
David Freese, 3B
Brennan Boesch, DH
Hank Conger, C
Efren Navarro, LF
SP: RH Matt Shoemaker (15-4, 3.16 ERA)
Mike Trout slung his bat and hissed as he jogged to first base in the fifth inning of Thursday’s eventual 7-3 win. For the second straight time, and the third time in the last two nights, the Angels’ 23-year-old center fielder — and typically mild-mannered superstar — had absorbed a fastball to his left triceps area.
Trout took an 89-mph sinker there from Nick Tepesch in the first inning on Wednesday, then a 90-mph from Nick Martinez in the third inning on Thursday and an 88-mph fastball there in the fifth inning on Friday. It would’ve been four times, had Trout not dodged Tespesch’s fifth-inning fastball inside on Wednesday, instead drawing a walk.
After the game, Trout said he was “good” and “just sore.”
Asked of his frustration to get hit in the same spot so often, Trout said: “I mean, you go up there to have at-bats. You don’t go up there thinking you’re going to get hit. They’re just pitching inside. They’ve been doing it the whole series, and I just got hit a couple times.”
Martinez said he was “just trying to establish the fastball inside and it got away from me.”
“I understand the frustration,” he added, “but it’s not on purpose.”
Angels manager Mike Scioscia believes him, but was also unhappy.
“When you are pitching inside, you can’t pitch inside with reckless abandon,” Scioscia said. “You have to have the command to be able to do it. I don’t think anyone likes when you get hit in the arm twice.”
Four innings later, the Angels got what seemed like retaliation, when Joe Smith came out of the bullpen for the bottom of the ninth and fired a first-pitch fastball near the waist of the first batter he saw, rookie catcher Tomas Telis. Scioscia said Smith “yanked a sinker” and added, “We’re not trying to hit anybody.” Smith said “one just got away” and “nothing was intentional.” But they’re supposed to say that. Everyone can see what happened.
The important thing is teams are constantly trying to pitch Trout inside this season, and lately they’ve been missing.
“It’s been all year; they’ve been pitching me more inside,” Trout said. “Different teams, different ways. I’m going to keep my same approach. I think I get in trouble when I look for that pitch [inside], so I’m just going to stay up the middle and see ball, hit ball.”
In the first inning of the Angels’ 8-1 win over the Rangers on Wednesday, Albert Pujols hit his first triple since 2010 (and only the 16th of his career). In the third, he laced a double (then got thrown out diving back to the bag after deciding he shouldn’t try for a second triple). In the fifth, he singled to right field (on a blooper that could’ve been caught by Rangers first baseman Adam Rosales).
The next three plate appearances: Grounder to short, grounder to short, grounder to short.
Were you searching for the homer?
“My fifth at-bat,” Pujols admitted, “just to give it a ride. … When you’re swinging the bat great, and seeing the ball good like I was tonight, you don’t go out there looking for a homer. I would say my fifth at-bat I did. I went out there with nobody on and see if I can put a good barrel and have it carry.”
Pujols has never hit for the cycle. On 32 occasions, he’s fallen a triple short. On three occasions — most recently Sept. 8, 2007 — he’s fallen a homer short.
“It would’ve been pretty cool, especially with the win,” Pujols said.
“It’s not easy. That’s why you don’t see it every day. It’s pretty tough to do. Everybody says the hardest part is to get that triple, which I believe it is, but that homer, too, is pretty tough.”
Wednesday marked the sixth straight day that Josh Hamilton missed a game with a stiff right shoulder that has shown no signs of getting any better. He took 40 to 50 swings in the batting cage early Tuesday afternoon, “felt OK,” then went outside to throw and “just having the glove on my hand, lifting it up kind of set it off again, so I shut it down.”
So Hamilton took two more cortisone shots, in addition to the one he took when he exited Thursday’s game in the middle of the eighth inning, and is searching for any signs that this is actually moving in the right direction.
“I’m usually never sore after cortisone shots,” Hamilton said. “The fact that I am might be a good thing, especially when you have the right spot.”
If the ailment persists when the Angels return to Southern California on Friday, Hamilton will get an MRI. Asked if he’s concerned this could be a prolonged injury, the 33-year-old outfielder said: “If I go a couple more days and I’m still not any better, then you start getting concerned.”
“Hopefully I wake up tomorrow and feel better and the next day, too,” Hamilton added. “I’m still doing some biking and stuff in my legs, and I’ve been here since 1 o’clock doing treatment on my arm and my neck.”
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he’s “not anymore concerned [on Wednesday] than I was yesterday,” but that’s because he was really concerned when Hamilton was out of the lineup Tuesday. Scioscia, at least, can take comfort in the fact that his offense hasn’t skipped a beat without its cleanup hitter, amassing 50 runs over the last five games and outscoring opponents by 25 runs over the last three nights.
For now, Hamilton is merely a spectator.
“Obviously it’s frustrating, but it’s exciting just to still be here and get to watch the game,” said Hamilton, batting .263 with 10 homers and 44 RBIs in 88 games. “It sucks not being out there with them, given that they’re playing that well. It’s still a blessing to be here and watch it.”
The Angels eventually ran away with it on Tuesday, but before the offense cranked out seven runs in the eighth inning, it was lining up to be a one-run game, and a save situation in the ninth.
Huston Street, however, was not available.
Mike Scioscia said Street has some tightness in the upper portion of his right hamstring, an ailment that prompted the Angels’ manager to stay away from his veteran closer. Instead, Fernando Salas pitched the seventh, Kevin Jepsen had the eighth and Joe Smith was ready to come in for the save in the ninth before the Angels’ offense batted around. Scioscia could’ve stayed away from Jepsen with an eight-run lead in the bottom of the eighth, but he hadn’t pitched in four days and wanted to use him nonetheless.
Street — with a 1.33 ERA and 37 saves — appeared in three straight games from Thursday to Saturday and has had the last three days off. Scioscia expects him to be available on Wednesday. Scioscia made a rare mound visit without making a pitching change in the bottom of the ninth, when Mike Morin plunked Michael Choice, then walked Guilder Rodriguez, the journeyman Minor Leaguer who had struck out in his first three plate appearances.
“It looked like he was over-thinking some things,” Scioscia said, “so I wanted to make sure he was OK.”
Morin retired the next two batters to seal the Angels’ season-high-tying sixth straight win.