Angels thump Guardians behind a bunt and a blast
Power — at the plate and on the mound — is the Angels’ signature feature. Especially when Shohei Ohtani is the pitcher and in the batting order.
Yet that doesn’t preclude manager Joe Maddon from employing small ball when the situation calls for it. And laying the groundwork for it as well. So when Tyler Wade laid down an exquisite bunt in the second inning, beating the throw by half a step to load the bases with none out, it was the product of preparation.
Taylor Ward followed with a grand slam, his third home run in three games, giving the Angels a cushion they never relinquished in a 9-5 win over the Cleveland Guardians on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium. Ward also tripled and doubled, just the most recent example of the Angels’ pop at the plate.
Ohtani survived a rough beginning to deliver the win, the Angels’ fourth in a row. Ward’s grand slam and Ohtani’s 97-mph fastballs became indelible memories for the fans, but Wade’s bunt showed the Angels can finesse as well as pummel.
A day earlier, several Angels hitters including Wade were on the field four hours before the game working on bunting. They pushed and dragged bunts for 45 minutes, occasionally pausing for instruction from coaches. Then long before the game Wednesday came more emphasis on fundamentals, with the Angels pitching staff practicing pickoff moves and fielding comebackers like they would on a Tempe, Ariz., backfield in March.
Spring training was abbreviated because of the lockout, reducing time spent on fine points such as bunting and pickoff plays.
“That work, that’s all our coaches,” Maddon said. “The bunting, working on picks, those are their fiefdoms.”
Maddon isn’t one to shrug and merely get on with the season, even when his lineup appears to have as much power as any in baseball.
To his players’ credit, they are putting in the extra work.
“It’s hard to bunt [velocity],” Wade said. “You constantly have to work on it. If you don’t, you get uncomfortable. The extra work we did [Tuesday], that absolutely made a difference.”
Then there is Ohtani, for whom extra work is a given. The two-way phenom has slumped at the plate, his batting average dipping precariously close to .200, and Maddon is asked daily by reporters when Ohtani will take a day off. Maddon smiles and repeats with the utmost confidence, “He’s in the lineup. He feels good. He is going to hit.”
Ohtani responded with a double and two singles. And every sixth game, he pitches. Jose Ramirez — the Guardians’ best hitter — blasted a two-run home run in the first inning and Ohtani pitched around two singles in the second and a double in the third.
He cruised thereafter, retiring the last eight hitters he faced before departing after five innings, having thrown 86 pitches, 59 for strikes.
“I was cold at first,” Ohtani said. “From the third inning on, I started to warm up and I moved better.”
Ohtani (2-2) struck out four and walked one, giving him 30 strikeouts against only five walks in 191/3 innings this season. The win moved the Angels into first place in the AL West, a half-game ahead of the Seattle Mariners.
The players blasted hip-hop music in the clubhouse afterward, Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell danced, and there were smiles all around. Ward missed a cycle because he flew out in the eighth inning when he needed a single, but he had no regrets.
“It was good to get Shohei a cushion early [with the grand slam],” he said. “Not that he usually needs it. We’re pumped. I think this is a special team.”
Three times six equals decent start
Patrick Sandoval’s seven scoreless innings Tuesday in the Angels’ 4-1 win over the Guardians marked the third start for each of the six members of the rotation. Four of the six — Ohtani, Sandoval, Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen — have pitched well. Left-handers Reid Detmers (6.57 ERA) and Jose Suarez (5.54) have not.
“The lefties hold the key to us,” Maddon said. “And just to get them to a solid five, five-plus [innings] by better strike-throwing with their fastballs. I like the six-man rotation, I think that’s here to stay. Especially with Shohei. The righties have done pretty well to this point, we’ve got to get the lefties going.”
Second baseman David Fletcher returned from his rehab assignment at triple-A Salt Lake to be evaluated by the medical staff. Fletcher, who has been out with a left hip strain for more than two weeks, was three for 17 in four rehab games. … Third base coach Phil Nevin is ill, prompting the staff and some players to don masks in the clubhouse. Maddon said there is no indication that Nevin has contracted COVID. … Wade visited the Bryant Arts Academy in Garden Grove and Griffin Canning visited La Veta Elementary School as part of the Angels’ Adopt-A-School program and the school received a donation from the Angels Baseball Foundation.