By Chad Stewart
The Angels arrived in Oakland with a 2-4 record after splitting their series against the Rangers. They left Oakland with a 5-4 record, having won four consecutive games.
Since Andrew Heaney was placed on the 15-day disabled list last week, righty Nick Tropeano started in his place on Monday, and he tossed five scoreless innings, striking out six and outdueling Athletics’ ace Sonny Gray. Gray also made it through five shutout innings. It wasn’t until the sixth inning when the Angels finally got to him. Yunel Escobar doubled with one out, and Daniel Nava drove him in with a single to center. Mike Trout followed by ripping a first-pitch fastball over the fence in left-center for his first home run of the year, making it 3-0. The Angels tacked on another run in the eighth on an Andrelton Simmons RBI single after Albert Pujols stole a base (!), Huston Street closed out the game, earning his second save, and the Angels won 4-1 in the series opener. Because Sonny Gray is one of the better pitchers in the league, this was an impressive and important win for a team that struggles to score runs consistently.
Hector Santiago was Tuesday’s starter, and allowed four runs across 7 2/3 innings. The most encouraging part of his start was the fact that he only walked one batter. For someone who has struggled with command throughout his career, he should find much more success if he continues this trend of limiting walks to opposing batters. Aside from the two solo home runs shortstop Marcus Semien hit, Santiago was solid, and kept the Angels withing striking distance. Right-hander Kendall Graveman started for the A’s, and the Angels were unable to figure him out, as he allowed just one run in six innings. Following his exit, John Axford shutdown the Angels in the seventh, so they entered the eighth down 4-1. Back-to-back one-out singles by Escobar and Nava and a strikeout by Trout brought Pujols to the plate with two runners on and two outs, facing Ryan Madson — who he was 0-for-12 against in his career. On an 0-2 count, Pujols laced a 2-run double into the left field corner, scoring two and narrowing the deficit to one. He was stranded there, so the Halos entered the ninth down by a score of 4-3. Closer Sean Doolittle was brought into the game, looking for his second save of the season. He walked pinch-hitter C.J. Cron with one out, which brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of catcher Geovany Soto. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Soto launched a 2-run shot to left-center, giving the Angels a 5-4 lead. A 1-2-3 inning by Street, and the Angels had a comeback victory against the two outstanding relievers.
On Wednesday, Matt Shoemaker took the mound with the Angels on the verge of their first sweep of the season, and he was sensational, allowing just one hit across six scoreless innings. He did walk three batters, but he was in control the whole game. This start was quite the antithesis of his first one in which he allowed six runs in three innings. Lefty Greg Mahle — recalled from Triple-A on Monday — made his major league debut in the relief of Shoemaker in the seventh, striking out one and not allowing a hit. Semien’s third homer of the series, against Fernando Salas, was the lone blemish on the Angels pitching staff, holding the A’s to three hits. Two RBI singles by Kole Calhoun — who went 3-for-5 — and one by Simmons had the Angels leading 3-0 in the eighth. Semien’s solo home run in the bottom of the inning brought Oakland within two, but Pujols delivered a two-RBI single in the top of the ninth to put the Halos up 5-1. That score held up, and the Angels completed the clean sweep.
While the starting staff was very impressive and key to the sweep, so was the bullpen. Angels relievers allowed just two runs in 8 2/3 innings in this series. The bullpen was never much of a concern before the season began, but its performance thus far has been encouraging, as we may see it become a strength once again like it was in the Halos’ 98-win 2014 campaign. The pitchers didn’t do it all on their own, of course, as defense also stood out. Simmons, Trout, and Calhoun all made spectacular, highlight-reel plays in the field. Their ability to do so throughout the year will be immensely important for a pitching staff that does not strike a huge amount of batters.
Due to a couple of excellent pitching performances, a comeback win, and some dazzling defensive plays, the Angels are 5-4 and sit atop the American League West. Now, they head to Minnesota to take on the 0-9 Twins. The Twins won 83 games in 2015, so they are probably not as bad as their record suggests, but another series victory for is certainly in the cards for the Angels.