By Chad Stewart
The Angels’ offense has seemingly turned it around. In May, they scored the fourth-most runs in the American League. In their series in Pittsburgh over the weekend, they scored 21 runs en route to two wins against a very good Pirates team.
The Halos got off to a quick start on Friday night, scoring three runs in the first inning off Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano. Mike Trout knocked in the first run after a Yunel Escobar single and a Kole Calhoun walk, and Johnny Giavotella followed with a two-RBI single. Jered Weaver started for the Angels, and he swung the bat before he even through a pitch. Unfortunately, he struck to end the inning. The Angels kept the pressure on Liriano, who struggled with control throughout his entire start. They scored another run in the second, two more in the third, and Liriano was finally taken out of the game after Kole Calhoun took him deep to plate the Angels’ seventh run of the night.
Weaver was not his best, but he was effective on Friday. He yielded two runs on six hits in six innings while striking out five. Since allowing eight runs in four innings on May 12, Weaver has allowed 11 runs in 26 innings and gone at least six innings in four starts. That’s good for a 3.81 earned-run average, which is about what should have been expected from Weaver this season, and it looks like he may be figuring out how to pitch with his greatly diminished velocity.
The Pirates came within two runs of the Angels on a pair of solo shots in the second inning, but that was as close as they would get. The Angels tallied nine runs, the Pirates didn’t score again, and the Angels took the series opener.
Jhoulys Chacin started Saturday’s game and returned to earth after his complete game his last time out, allowing three runs on six hits in five innings. As Liriano did the night before, Chacin struggled with control, walking four and falling behind in the count more often than not.
The Angels scored another first-inning run when Calhoun crushed a solo home run to center field. Pittsburgh third baseman Jung Ho Kang gave the Pirates the lead with a two-run homer in the second, but Yunel Escobar tied it up with a double in the third. Then, in the fourth, Chacin walked Andrew McCutchen with the bases loaded the give the lead right back. In the sixth, Angels’ left fielder Shane Robinson sneaked a ball over the left-field fence — his first home run since 2013 — to tie the game at three.
Right-hander Fernando Salas was then brought in in relief in the seventh, and the Pirates broke the game open, or so it seemed. The first pitch Salas threw was deposited into the right-field seats by Gregory Polanco. Back-to-back singles and a throwing error by Giavotella gave the Pirates their fifth run of the game, and then, with two runners aboard, former Angel Matt Joyce stepped up to the plate. As an Angel last year, Joyce was 1-for-24 against lefties, so left-hander Greg Mahle was brought in to face him. On a 1-2 count, Joyce launched a belt-high fastball over the center-field fence for his sixth home run of the year, surpassing his 2015 total in about a third of the plate appearances.
The Angels answered right back, however, with four runs in the top of the eighth. Robinson led off the inning with a walk, and Escobar drove him in with a double. Calhoun kept the line moving with an RBI single, and he scored when Giavotella grounded into a fielder’s choice. Carlos Perez followed with a two-out double to narrow Pittsburgh’s lead to 8-7, but he was stranded there by pinch-hitter Jefry Marte, and, after going down in order in the ninth, the Angels dropped the second game of the series.
Sunday’s series finale was another tightly contested affair. The two teams traded runs in the first inning, and, in the second, the Pirates plated two off Angels’ starter Hector Santiago, who had another rough start, going just four innings and giving up three runs while walking four. The score remained that way until the sixth when Pittsburgh tacked on a fourth run. C.J. Cron narrowed the deficit to 4-2 with a pinch-hit RBI double. Gregorio Petit then poked a double down the first-base line, allowing Cron to score and knocking out Pirates’ ace Gerrit Cole. Neftali Feliz replaced Cole, and, on a 2-1 count, Escobar smoked a line drive to left-center, but center fielder Starling Marte a spectacular diving catch to save the tying run from scoring.
Lefty Tony Watson started the eighth on the mound for the Pirates and gave up a lead-off single to Calhoun. Trout popped out to shortstop, bringing Pujols to the plate. Ahead in the count 0-2, Watson served up a high fastball, and Pujols belted it to left field for a go-ahead, two-run homer, his 12th home run of the season and 30th career home run at PNC Park.
Deolis Guerra pitched a clean eighth inning for the Angels, and Huston Street was called upon to close the game out. With one out, he walked Polanco and gave up a double to Kang, putting runners on second and third. Street intentionally walked Starling Marte to get to former Angel Sean Rodriguez and, on the first pitch, he grounded the ball to shortstop, and the Angels converted a game-ending 6-4-3 double play to secure the victory.
Following the series victory, the Halos are now in fourth place in the AL West at 26-30 and eight games back of the division-leading Texas Rangers. The Rangers and Mariners entered the weekend tied atop the division, but Texas swept Seattle to gain a three-game cushion, and they now have the best record in the AL. The Astros swept the A’s this weekend to improve to 11-2 in their last 13, and move into third place at 28-30.
The whole offense was on display this weekend, but Pujols and Calhoun stood out. Pujols went 4-for-10 with three RBI and a game-winning home run. In his last 30 games, Pujols is hitting .279 with six home runs and an .832 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, which are close to the numbers he has provided in his Angels’ career. It’s no coincidence that the Angels’ offense has taken off in that span, averaging over five runs per game.
Calhoun went 6-for-12 with three home runs, one in each game, four RBI, and a double. Calhoun is quietly putting together an All-Star-caliber campaign, batting .306 with six home runs, 37 runs scored, and an .847 OPS. Along with Escobar, he has done a terrific job setting the table for Trout and Pujols and helped give the Angels a lethal top of the order.
The Angels will now head to New York to take on the Yankees. The Yankees and Angels have identical records, and both sit in fourth place in their respective divisions. New York is coming off of a series loss in Baltimore and have lost eight of their last 13. The Yankees are 14th in the AL in runs scored, slightly ahead of the lowly Minnesota Twins. They are 10th in ERA, just ahead of the Angels. Matt Shoemaker will start for the Angels on Monday night opposite Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka (3-1, 2.78 ERA). Shoemaker has struck out at least eight and walked none in his last three starts, and he will try to become the first pitcher since at least 1893 (18!) to do that in four consecutive starts.