By Chad Stewart
Continuing their theme of inconsistency, the Angels lost two out three games against the Houston Astros this weekend. After winning six of seven, the Angels have now lost three consecutive series and six of their last nine games. The Angels easily won the series opener on Friday, but they lost the final two games of the series, faltering in just about every aspect at some point.
Game one was a well-played game all around. Matt Shoemaker made his second straight dazzling start. Shoemaker dominated, striking out 11 Astros and allowing two runs in 8 1/3 innings. He now has 23 strikeouts and zero walks over his last two starts, becoming the first Angel pitcher ever to have double-digit strikeouts without walking a batter in back-to-back starts. Not bad for a guy who had an 8.49 earned-run average before those two starts.
Fortunately, the Angels offense backed up Shoemaker’s brilliant performance. The damage was done in the third inning when they loaded the bases for Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols. Calhoun looped a single down the left-field line to score one, and Trout followed by hammering a double off the left-center wall to clear the bases, and give the Angels a 4-0 lead. Pujols put the cherry on top with a two-run home run to left-center field, his 10th of the year. Yunel Escobar hit an RBI single in the next inning, driving in the Angels’ seventh and final run. Shoemaker cruised through the rest of the game and was taken out of the game with two runners on, one out, and a 7-0 lead. Cam Bedrosian was called upon to get the final two outs, and he did so after allowing both of Shoemaker’s runs to score, giving the Angels a 7-2 victory.
Reigning Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel took the mound for the Astros on Saturday night, and the Angels jumped on him early. After Houston scored a run in the top of the first, Trout and Pujols clubbed back-to-back home runs to give their team the
lead. It turns out that that would be the Halos’ only source of offense, as they would only get one more hit the rest of the game. That hit came in the form of a second-inning single by Johnny Giavotella. Keuchel proceeded to retire the final 18 batters he faced and Houston’s bullpen added two more perfect innings. Although Keuchel was the best pitcher in the American League last year, he has struggled mightily this year. Entering Friday night, he had a 5.92 ERA, so the way he breezed through the Angels’ lineup was a little disappointing, especially considering the amount of runs they scored the night before.
Jered Weaver started for the Angels on Saturday and had another shaky start. After giving up a run on a fielder’s choice in the first inning, Weaver settled down. It wasn’t until the fifth inning that Houston began to get to him. With one out, Weaver allowed a pair of hits and a walk to load the bases for Jose Altuve. He limited the damage to a sacrifice fly to tie the game, and Carlos Correa to flied out to end the frame. Weaver started the next inning by hitting a batter and issuing his third walk of the evening. He forced the next batter to ground into a double play, but, with two outs and two strikes, catcher Jason Castro went deep to give the Astros the lead, and the Astros won by a score of 4-2.
Unlike on Saturday, the Angels created plenty of run-scoring opportunities on Sunday. They were just unable to capitalize on most of them, leaving 14 runners on base and going 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position.
The Halos took another early lead on a first-inning Calhoun solo shot off Astros starter Doug Fister. Houston took a 4-2 lead in the sixth, but the Angels narrowed the deficit to 4-3 in the home half of the sixth. In the seventh, the Halos were finally able to string together a few hits. With runners on the corners, Pujols flared a game-tying single to right-center. Trout advanced to third on the single, and the Angels took the lead on a perfectly executed sacrifice squeeze by Giavotella.
The lead was short-lived, however, as reliever Fernando Salas gave up back-to-back hits to begin the eighth, tying the game at five.
The Angels then put the go-ahead run on second with one out in the eighth, but Kaleb Cowart and C.J. Cron both grounded out. In the ninth, they put runners on first and second with one out (and second and third with two outs), but were unable to come through, forcing the game to extra innings. Joe Smith came in to pitch the tenth, and — after a walk, a rare fielding error by Calhoun, and an intentional walk — Houston loaded the bases with one out. Smith escaped by striking out Tyler White and getting Marwin Gonzalez to line out to Cron.
The Angels’ next missed opportunity came in the 11th when Calhoun crushed a one-out triple off the top of the right-field wall, which prompted intentional walks of both Trout and Pujols, bringing Giavotella to the plate with the bases loaded. Giavotella usually thrives in these situations, but he struck out with the winning run in scoring position for the second time that afternoon. Rafael Ortega followed by popping out to the shortstop, so the game continued.
Both teams went quietly in the 12th. In the 13th, budding star Carlos Correa made his first career appearance as a pinch hitter with two outs and two runners on. Mike Morin hung a 2-1 change up, and Correa belted a towering three-run shot just over the left-field wall to give the Astros an 8-5 lead. After a Pujols double, the Angels had runners on second and third with two outs in the bottom of the 13th. Calhoun scored on a wild pitch, but Giavotella went down swinging to complete the hat trick, and the Astros took the series finale, 8-6.
Nick Tropeano’s previous two starts were his best of the year, but his start on Sunday
was one of his worst. He labored through five innings, giving up four runs on seven hits and walking five. The lead-off hitter reached base in four of the five innings, and he did not have a 1-2-3 inning. Despite this start, Tropeano has still been a very solid piece of the Angels’ rotation and arguably the best and most consistent; his ERA is now the lowest of their five starters at 3.25.
With the recent resurgence of Shoemaker, the consistency of Tropeano, and the imminent return of Tim Lincecum, the Angels will be faced with a tough decision regarding their rotation. Lincecum pitched in an extended spring training game on Saturday and is set to make a Triple-A start on June 7. After that, he will make his first major league start in almost a year, on June 12 against the Indians. The question is: who will come out of the rotation to make room for Lincecum? I would imagine that Jhoulys Chacin is the most likely candidate, but two of his three starts as an Angel have been quality starts. Shoemaker would have been the easy choice a couple of weeks ago, but his last two starts have been outstanding. Hector Santiago and Weaver have been their worst starters in recently, but I highly doubt Santiago will be taken out of the rotation since he was an All-Star last year and the fact that he should be the Angels’ best pitcher right now. And Weaver is pretty much a lock for the rotation all year. This is certainly not a bad problem to have, but I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision, and whoever is taken out of the rotation could always be transferred to the bullpen.
Giavotella had a rough game on Sunday, but he has been terrific for the last month or so, both offensively and defensively. After batting .182 in April, he batted .352 with eight doubles, 12 runs scored, and 11 RBI in May to bring his season average up to .287. His defense was one of his most glaring weaknesses last year, but he has been much improved this year, making highlight-reel plays night after night.
The Angels are now 22-28 on the season, and they continue to fall further out of contention. The Rangers are .5 games ahead of the Mariners for first place, and the Angels are seven games back of Texas, just a half-game ahead of the Astros for third place. The Astros won just seven games in April, but they have since rebounded, going 15-12 in May. The Rangers rotation was bolstered with the return of ace Yu Darvish on Saturday, giving them one of the best starting rotations in the American League.
The Angels open a three-game set at home against the Tigers on Monday. The Tigers are 24-25 and three games back of the first-place Royals in a tightly contested American League Central. With a lineup consisting of sluggers Miguel Cabrera, Justin Upton, Victor Martinez, and more, the Tigers possess one of the most-feared offenses in the American League and have scored the fifth-most runs in the league. While they do have a deadly offense, they have one of the worst pitching staffs in the league. Detroit has a team ERA of 4.47, 13th in the American League. On Monday night, the Angels will face the winner of both the 2011 Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player, Justin Verlander. Verlander struggled in April, but his last four starts have been great. Verlander has allowed just four runs in his last 28 1/3 innings.