When each night of baseball begins, the player I want to watch more than any other is Fernando Tatis Jr. There are scores of players I’m interested in, hot streaks to follow, stat chases to track, pennant races to care about, matchups, backstories, new players, breakouts, a constantly changing treasure map of where the good stuff is. But more constant than all of that is Tatis.
He has the best arm of any shortstop. Only 10 hitters in all of baseball have hit a ball harder than his max velocity of 115.9 mph. He’s stunningly aggressive on the bases, scoring twice on sacrifice flies to the second baseman. He plays like his hair is on fire, and when his helmet falls off — as it often does — he looks like it, too. Consider a single play:
— San Diego Padres (@Padres) June 30, 2019
His casual, upright posture as he takes his lead; the intimidating flash of the bluffed steal; the speed of his head traveling the bottom of the screen as the base hit drops in; the juxtaposition of Jose Martinez running, and then Tatis running; the helmet shaking off at the final second, the fire; the way he ran so hard his shirt came unbuttoned; the way players can be so beautiful they can wear a camouflage baseball jersey and look good; the eye contact and smile he gives to Eric Hosmer, making sure Hosmer acknowledges Tatis just gifted him an RBI; the irony of Tatis, making the league minimum, making money fingers at Hosmer, a player paid 40 times more than that; the comic timing of doing money fingers from inside an oven mitt.
And he’s incredibly good, too. Prorate his stats over a full season and he’d have 40 homers and 35 stolen bases, 130 runs scored and (as a leadoff man) 95 runs driven in. He’s in the top 10 in the National League in all three slash stats. He’s a leadoff hitter who slugs .620. He missed all of May and he’s 16th in the majors in WAR. He’s 20, the second-youngest hitter in the majors.
What do we call this? Most Fun Player In Baseball? Most Exciting? Most Watchable? The final word probably works the best, and is the least easily misunderstood, though it’s also a little clunky. The idea we’re going for is threefold: a player who is almost certain to do something interesting in a given game; who can frequently do something stunning, unprecedented or GIFable; and who plays in a way that evokes some secondary emotion, apart from the mere thrill of victory/agony of defeat that all sport offers. Whatever the word, Tatis — regardless of what happens with the rest of his career — has now joined a lineage of players who were, for a time, the most entertaining player in the game.
Tatis was born Jan. 2, 1999. Since then, by our reckoning, there have been almost two dozen players who have held this unofficial title.* The churn is rapid. We grow complacent, we seek novelty, and age takes its toll on players. As it is now, though, Tatis fits perfectly at the end of this list:
April 1999-July 1999: At the time Omar Vizquel was, by reputation, the best defensive shortstop in baseball, a trick-shot master of barehanded snags, back-to-the-infield catches, and fake-out throws to trick runners. He didn’t hit much. But in the final month of 1998, he hit .338/.413/.493 with 10 steals in 21 games, a hint of the breakout that would come in 1999, when he set career highs in all three slash stats (despite just five home runs). He was the opposite of Mark McGwire in every way, and in the hangover period after the 1998 home run chase — and as McGwire and Sammy Sosa kept bopping cheap-60s home run totals — Vizquel’s offensive style seemed livelier and less repetitive. He batted second in a Cleveland lineup that scored 1,009 runs in 1999, the only team to do that since 1950 (and still the most recent). And while it was in 2000, not 1999, that Vizquel first completed a straight steal of home, he was already the sort of player who felt like he might steal home. He also was in the process of inventing the post-walkoff celebration that is now the sport’s standard.
July 1999-July 2000: In the 1999 All-Star Game, when Pedro Martinez famously struck out five batters in two dominant innings, the hardest throw might well have been by Ivan Rodriguez, who nailed Matt Williams on a strikeout/throw-out double play to complete Martinez’s second inning. Rodriguez, by statistic and by anecdote, was the greatest thrower in catching history, and in 1999 he picked off 11 runners and threw out 55 percent of those who tried to steal. He also fulfilled his manager’s prophecies by becoming an incredible offensive force, hitting 35 homers, stealing 25 bases (while allowing only 34!) and batting .332. He was even better the next year, hitting .347/.375/.667 before an injury ended his season in July.
July 2000-end of that season: Vladimir Guerrero is a defensible answer for any time period between June 3, 1997, and Aug. 14, 2009. His limbs moved like the flames in a barrel fire, barely contained, ever reaching over the sides, with a terrifying appetite to do more and more. He swung at everything, and every swing was his hardest; he tried to throw out every baserunner, and every throw was all the way on the fly. He led the league in outfield errors six consecutive years, and was typically high on the leaderboards of outs made on the bases, but he also hit .345/.410/.664 for the 2000 season, with 13 home runs in September alone.
2001: If Guerrero was muscular chaos, Ichiro was all precision and straight lines: Direct routes, low throws, line drives. His “iconic throw to third base,” a video of him throwing out Terrence Long, has more than 5 million views on YouTube, and came in his eighth career game. By that point he was hitting .371, an average that would drop only to .350 by the end of his rookie season. He led the league in steals, hits, batting average and fielding percentage. He was way skinnier than the rest of the stars, he hit with a totally unconventional swing that produced very little power, but for parts of that season you would have been sure he was the best in the world at four of the five scouting tools.
2002 through June 2003: In 2002, Guerrero came within one homer of baseball’s fourth 40-40 season, for an Expos team that was threatened the previous offseason with contraction but turned out to be a surprise contender.
June 2003 through the end of the season: Miguel Cabrera entered the year ranked 12th among all prospects on Baseball America’s preseason list, and then hit .365 with power at Double-A. He ended his major league debut with the Marlins by hitting a walk-off home run (over center fielder Rocco Baldelli, another Most Exciting contender in 2003), and he crushed the Cubs in that year’s National League Championship Series. He was still skinny, and I swear I remember him making swell plays at third base in that postseason.
2004: Carlos Beltran was the biggest name on the midseason trade market, and poised to be the best free agent that winter, so a couple dozen teams’ fans could watch him dominate two leagues in 2004 while fantasizing about their team somehow acquiring him. He hit 38 homers that year while stealing 42 bases (and getting caught just three times), but it was what he did after a trade to Houston that was most memorable: 28 stolen bases without being caught, 23 homers (and seven triples!) in just 90 games, and then perhaps the greatest postseason in history: eight homers in 12 games, a .435/.536/1.022 slash line, and six stolen bases.
2005-2006: This was a very clutch-skeptical era, especially in the snarky stathead writing that captured the zeitgeist of the period. David Ortiz was, of course, beloved for myriad reasons, an incredible hitter with a huge smile and a fantastic backstory. He was also, after the 2004 postseason, the most Obviously Clutch hitter in the world, and the tension of these two things drove a lot of people nuts. As Ken Tremendous wrote at the time, “This kills me to write, but … there is no such thing as clutch hitting. The reason it kills me is because I have watched David Ortiz win thirteen games with walk-off hits in the last three years, including three in the playoffs, and two in the last two days. David Ortiz/clutch hitting is like one of those magic eyes holograms — you know there is no 3-D space shuttle in the book you are holding, but holy Christ does it look like there is a 3-D space shuttle.” It was fun.
2007: Since integration there have been three players who’ve had 20 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season: Willie Mays, in 1957, and Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins, both in 2007. Each could have been the Most Exciting that year, but Rollins was also one of the two or three best defensive shortstops in baseball at the time, and the better base stealer, and he struck out much less frequently.
April 2008 through July 2008: Josh Hamilton‘s comeback from addiction was, by 2007, already enough to justify an autobiography. But in 2008 he played his first full season, started the All-Star Game in center field, and set Home Run Derby records with his 28-homer first round. “Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet,” his teammate Ian Kinsler said that year, which was obviously not true in the traditional sense but had a sort of logic to it all the same.
August 2008 through the end of that season: When Manny Ramirez was happy, you half expected him to sprout rocket boosters, take off into the sky and do a bunch of whirlies in the clouds. When he got traded to the Dodgers on the final day of July 2008, he got really happy, and he hit .396/.489/.743 the rest of the way, then .520/.667/1.080 in eight postseason games. He was 36, but in a way he felt like a prospect being called up. Just a total phenomenon.
2009: In my lifetime, “Son of Vladimir Guerrero” has only one competitor for most exciting prospect biographical note: “Son of Cecil Fielder.” Prince Fielder might have actually been more exciting in 2007, when he hit 50 homers as a 23-year-old, or 2011, when he took the Brewers to the NLCS, but 2009 was probably his best year, and it was also the year of the still-never-topped bomb-drop celebration at home plate.
2010: Citing a hot streak isn’t quite in the spirit of the exercise, but Troy Tulowitzki‘s Two Weeks In September 2010 is my permanent standard for How Hot Can A Player Get? Over 16 games — one-tenth of a season — he hit 14 home runs, slugging 1.121 in that time. It wasn’t just those two weeks, though: He was probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball at the time, seemingly oversized for the position but with an outrageously strong arm that he could utilize from any orientation. He just couldn’t seem to stay healthy, so you made sure to watch when he was, as he mostly was in the first year of this decade.
2011: Pablo Sandoval, in 2011, hit .306/.383/.551 — on pitches out of the strike zone! (He hit .319/.319/.546 on pitches in the zone.) He would swing at anything, he would hit it, it was all great fun, and there was the cool nickname/merchandising tie-in to go along with it. The 2011 season was also the one when he was phenomenal defensively, according to both advanced metrics and the eye test.
2012: Mike Trout. He stole four home runs with leaping catches. He might well have been the fastest player in baseball — he led the league in steals, and in breathless accounts from scouts with stopwatches — and he was almost certainly the fastest starting from a stopped position, plowing up infield dirt behind him. At one point in the summer he was leading the majors in baserunning runs, hitting runs and fielding runs at his position, the three main components of WAR. He has somehow become a better player since then, but that was peak fun.
2013: This was a ridiculous year for watchable players. Manny Machado was 20 years old, leading the league in doubles and plausibly the best defensive third baseman of all time. Andrelton Simmons, meanwhile, was producing four GIFs a week with unprecedented shortstop play in his first full season. Billy Hamilton debuted, a year after stealing 155 bases in the minors, and raising all sorts of questions about the limits of speed; a showdown between him and Yadier Molina in September is an enduring memory from that season. Carlos Gomez, a nearly perfect accumulation of tools, put everything together for an MVP-caliber season, which culminated in the defining battle of this decade’s Unwritten Rules Wars. Hanley Ramirez broke out of Florida — where he’d been miserable — and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for the Dodgers, despite missing half a season. But it’s definitely Yasiel Puig, who hit .517 in spring training, then .436 in his first full month in the majors, and who devoted every calorie he consumed to creating an outlandish highlight. He was unapologetic and seemed intent on pulling the sport his way until it could keep up with his pace.
2014: This was the year the Hunter Pence signs started — “Hunter Pence eats pizza with a fork” and other rando stuff. The signs weren’t that much fun, but they coincided with Freaky Pence Stuff really reaching its cultural peak. Only he could contort the way he did, only he threw and swung the way he did, and nobody else who has ever finished 11th in MVP voting (as he did that year — his highest finish) looked more like he was making fun of baseball playing than he did.
2015: It’s probably Bryce Harper, more because of the sense of payoff — this was what we’d been investing our attention in since he was a high school sophomore — than because the best player is necessarily always the most watchable. There’s a case for Joey Votto here, bouncing back from a mostly lost 2014 season and mastering the strike zone like nobody since Barry Bonds had. There’s a case for Jose Bautista, who flipped the danged bat (and also hit 40 regular-season homers, all of them majestic and beautiful). It’s Harper, though.
Early 2016: Quoting myself, from around that time: “A good Mookie Betts day is the most fun you can have at a ballpark. He’ll put the ball in play four times. One will be a sharp line drive up the middle on an impossible-to-hit 0-2 pitch. One will be a double into right-center — no, wait, he’s going to stretch it, it’s going to be close, here’ll come the throw and he’ll be … safe at third! He’ll homer, and it’ll look like Little Mac using one of his stars, a towering uppercut blow from the smallest guy in the lineup. He’ll work a tough walk to keep a rally going, then he’ll steal second, then he’ll score from second on an infield single. He’ll make a leaping catch in right field on a dead sprint; he’ll cut a ball off on its way to the gap, and then he’ll gun down the runner trying to go first to third. Wins Above Replacement stick to him like he’s magnetized.” There have been many brief challenges to Trout’s title of best in baseball, but Betts’ challenge has been the most sustained and his approach the closest, and it started in 2016.
Late 2016: Gary Sanchez had been an elite prospect, a name baseball fans knew for five whole years before he got called up for good Aug. 3. He hit 20 home runs in 52 games and, despite criticism for other parts of his defense, he threw as hard as any catcher in baseball. New York stars become extremely famous extremely fast, and for those two months it looked like Sanchez, not the still-to-come Aaron Judge, might quickly become the most famous baseball player in the world.
2017: I’ve never seen anybody swing harder than Javier Baez. I’ve almost never seen anybody swing more often. Over the course of a season, his swings alone burn twice as much fuel as an energy-efficient major leaguer’s. He’s astonishingly aggressive as a runner, taking extra bases (e.g., first to third or scoring from second on a single) more often in his career than much-faster Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. He’s also the most creative defender in baseball, “El Mago,” a magician who might conjure outs out of nothing anytime he’s holding the baseball. He does the most mundane things with flair. He might be the most watchable player of my life, to be honest, and it was almost easier to appreciate this before he became an outright superstar in 2018.
2018: Shohei Ohtani. Easy one.
There are players we can’t believe we didn’t name. Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre, Grady Sizemore, Giancarlo Stanton, Francisco Lindor, Carl Crawford, Buster Posey, Jose Ramirez, Byron Buxton, Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Torii Hunter, Yoenis Cespedes, Andrew McCutchen. Not to mention Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
Those final two are a daily challenge to Tatis’ hold on this spot. For now, though, he’s outrunning them both.
*We limited this title to position players. Pitching is just a different role entirely, entertainmentwise, and while we’d love to have spent Tuesday writing about Jose Fernandez and Dontrelle Willis, they feel like a separate category. We also restricted the pool of candidates to major leaguers only.
Trout day to day after MRI shows calf strain
Trout experienced soreness in his calf early in Sunday’s 6-3 win over the Seattle Mariners, and he was removed to begin the third inning. He lobbied to remain in the game, but the team opted to exercise caution.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Trout said Sunday. He remained out of the lineup for Monday’s game against the Houston Astros.
Trout is batting .305/.455/.666, putting him on a pace to capture his third MVP trophy. He’s 12-for-32 with eight home runs in nine games this month.
ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez contributed to this report.
Cubs acquire catcher Maldonado from Royals
The Cubs announced the deal Monday night.
Maldonado, a defensive-minded 32-year-old catcher, should be an immediate replacement for All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, who hit the injured list Monday with a strain in the arch of his right foot. While Contreras isn’t expected to miss a significant amount of time, Maldonado serves as a solid insurance policy.
He has been one of the best defensive catchers in baseball this season and was traded last July, too, going from the Los Angeles Angels to the Houston Astros. He signed a one-year, $2.5 million with Kansas City and started in place of Salvador Perez, who’s out for the year with Tommy John surgery.
Once Contreras returns, Maldonado will serve as a backup. The move could free the Cubs to use backup catcher Victor Caratini in more of a utility role to get him more plate appearances.
Montgomery, 30, was on the mound when Kris Bryant threw the ball to Anthony Rizzo to secure the final out of the 2016 season. It was his first career save and the highlight of his Cubs tenure, which started that season.
Drafted by the Royals in the first round of the 2008 draft, Montgomery was a top prospect before being dealt in a deal that netted Kansas City James Shields and Wade Davis. He was dealt soon thereafter to Seattle and arrived in Chicago a year later in 2016. Montgomery has vacillated between the starting rotation and a relief role, though he prefers to start and is likely to do so in Kansas City.
He has struggled this season, posting a 5.67 ERA in 20 relief appearances and seeing his peripheral numbers suffer as well. The Cubs have been trying to deal him for months, sources told ESPN’s Jesse Rogers.
Montgomery does come with two additional seasons of club control, which made him attractive to Kansas City, while Maldonado will be a free agent after this season.
‘He’s here with us’ — How the Angels honored Tyler Skaggs with an emotional, historic tribute
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Most of the Los Angeles Angels struggled to sleep on Friday night. They were still processing the events that unfolded, still too emotional coming off a game that, for some, evoked sentiments of a higher power. Andrelton Simmons, the team’s shortstop, was an exception. He slept more soundly than he had in the 11 nights since the tragic death of his friend and teammate, Tyler Skaggs, because of a comforting presence he couldn’t quite place.
Simmons relived those events the following afternoon and stammered often, struggling to contextualize the Angels’ ability to no-hit the Mariners while wearing Skaggs’ jersey — in their first home game since his passing, mere hours before what would have been his 28th birthday. Simmons ultimately described it as “a very warm, nice feeling that there’s something else, after this. We kind of know now, for sure, that he’s here with us.”
He thought about Debbie Skaggs, the longtime softball coach who inspired her son’s love for pitching, and that perfect strike she threw for the ceremonial first pitch. He thought about all the numbers that eerily pointed back to Skaggs — Mike Trout’s first-inning home run traveled 454 feet, depicting Skaggs’ No. 45 forward and backward; seven first-inning runs and 13 total, symbolizing Skaggs’ birthday on the seventh month and the 13th day; the first combined no-hitter in California since July 13, 1991, the day Skaggs was born.
He thought about that sixth-inning, diving play by rookie third baseman Matt Thaiss, who is still new to the position. He thought about how every other ball hit off Taylor Cole and Felix Pena seemed to travel directly at a defensive player. He thought about the final snapshot, of three dozen No. 45 jerseys lying on the Angel Stadium pitcher’s mound.
“It was just designed perfectly,” Simmons said. “It felt like a guidance.”
Dee Gordon‘s viral postgame quote — “If you don’t believe in God, you might want to start” — made its way through the Angels’ clubhouse and drew laughs. Albert Pujols, a devout Christian, felt validated in his faith. Andrew Heaney, who doesn’t consider himself religious, pondered the possibility of larger forces at play.
“You can’t help but think that something bigger is going on, or someone out there is watching out for us,” Angels reliever Cam Bedrosian said. “You could just feel it. You could feel something different.”
Skaggs’ widow, Carli, visited the clubhouse before players were scheduled to be on the field and offered comforting hugs to several of her late husband’s former teammates. Debbie Skaggs made the rounds in the dugout shortly thereafter, displaying uplifting strength while chatting with Kole Calhoun and Justin Upton, among others. What followed was a video tribute, then a 45-second moment of silence, then an unspeakably emotional ballgame.
Gordon, the opposing second baseman, was in a similar position less than three years ago when he mustered the strength to belt a home run to lead off the first game since Jose Fernandez’s sudden death on Sept. 26, 2016.
When Friday’s pregame ceremony concluded, Gordon felt his own intuition.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “I knew we were gonna get our ass whupped.”
Tim Mead touched down in Albany, New York, on July 1, turned on his smartphone and quickly became engulfed by an avalanche of text messages informing him of Skaggs’ passing. (The cause of death is still unknown.) Mead had just returned from London, where he took in a series between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox as part of his new job as president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a position he recently accepted after four decades with the Angels. He spent the entire 90-minute drive to Cooperstown calling old friends and longtime co-workers.
“It was a surreal moment,” Mead said. “Again.”
Mead, who spent the past 22 years leading the Angels’ communications department, was with the organization when 22-year-old pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed by a drunk driver on April 9, 2009, hours after an exceptional outing. Mead’s mind immediately retreated there.
Kevin Jepsen, a retired former Angels reliever who teamed with Skaggs in 2014, felt the same way. Jepsen rehabbed alongside Adenhart early on and established a close bond with him as they made their way through the Angels’ system. In the wake of his death, Jepsen was the one tasked with hanging Adenhart’s jersey in his late teammate’s locker before every game.
Throughout that 2009 season, Jepsen couldn’t help but think Adenhart was recovering from an injury in Arizona, like so many others, and that eventually he would return.
“You just kept waiting for him to come back — to get healthy and come back and join the team — and you have to remind yourself that he wasn’t coming back,” Jepsen said. “It was just that constant reminder. The hope, and then the crush all over again, almost every day.”
Jepsen remembers a 2009 Angels team that couldn’t wait to get to the field for a necessary distraction. They thrived that season, winning 97 regular-season games and falling only two victories shy of the World Series. Adenhart’s death put everything else in perspective. Suddenly, Jepsen said, baseball didn’t mean all that much. It allowed them all to play freely.
His advice for the current Angels is to “lean on each other.”
“It’s OK to break down,” Jepsen said, “it’s OK to tell your guy next to you in the locker that you’re struggling one day, because odds are he’s feeling the same way.”
Mark Gubicza, in his 13th season as an Angels broadcaster, immediately felt a kinship with Skaggs. Gubicza spent the early years of his playing career fighting the label of a talented pitcher who couldn’t figure it out. He eventually did, making a couple of All-Star teams in a career that spanned 14 seasons, and he was confident that Skaggs — a first-round pick out of high school who was seemingly beginning to turn the corner — would do the same.
The two established a ritual on July 26, 2016, in Kansas City, on the morning of Skaggs’ first start since undergoing Tommy John surgery. Skaggs walked into a nearby Starbucks, saw Gubicza and asked to talk. They sat together for hours, nearly losing track of time. Gubicza told old stories from his playing days, broke down Skaggs’ mechanics and implored him to maintain a competitive edge.
Skaggs pitched eight scoreless innings that night. And so before each of Skaggs’ next starts, they either met at a Starbucks on the road or texted each other pictures of their orders at home. For his last outing, on June 29, Gubicza sent a picture of his sweaty Starbucks cup resting on a scorebook. After that game, in which Skaggs pitched four scoreless innings before facing trouble in the fifth, Gubicza sent another message: “Your stuff is great right now. This is your chance to go to the next level.”
Skaggs’ response: “I’m getting there.”
To those who knew him within his profession, Skaggs was an extremely talented pitcher who was noticeably eager to become great. But he was also affable, magnetic, charming, inclusive, generous. Nobody on the Angels dressed better or had a more refined taste for music or was more beloved by the clubhouse attendants. Few, anywhere, did a better job of combining arrogance with endearment.
Angels catcher Dustin Garneau, who became friends with Adenhart days before he died, once guided Skaggs through a recruiting tour of Cal State Fullerton and said he “had a cockiness to him that I absolutely appreciated.” Huston Street, the Angels’ former closer, described Skaggs as “uniquely confident and real and cool and damn good but still hungry.”
Tim Salmon, the longtime Angels right fielder who still spends a lot of time around the team, recalled a cruise they embarked on together with season-ticket holders.
“We had some great conversations about what it takes to be a successful major leaguer,” Salmon said. “He was so eager to learn anything he could from my experiences.”
Mead will never forget the joy he felt introducing Skaggs to Chuck Finley, whom Skaggs identified as his favorite Angels pitcher. He’ll miss walking up to Skaggs the day after his starts and asking, “What did your mom say?”
“I know he was a fantastic husband,” Mead said, “and I think he would’ve been a tremendous father.”
Mike Butcher was the Angels’ pitching coach from 2007 to 2015. He was the first person Adenhart’s father called on the night of the accident, a moment that shook him to his core. Weeks later, Butcher stayed for a pre-draft workout at Angel Stadium and saw a wiry, fresh-faced, Santa Monica High School left-hander throwing fastballs, sliders, changeups and curveballs.
He pulled Skaggs aside, asked his age and learned the pitcher had just turned 17.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Butcher, currently on the Arizona Diamondbacks’ coaching staff, said. “It blew me away.”
The Angels, at the behest of Butcher, drafted Skaggs 40th overall that June. They traded him to the Diamondbacks in August 2010, then got him back in December 2013. Skaggs made the Opening Day rotation the following spring, and Butcher still remembers the smile that swept across Skaggs’ face when he was given the news.
“I could still see it,” Butcher said. “He was just special, in every single way. And he could make everybody around him feel good.”
Bedrosian keeps thinking about the first time Skaggs and former teammate Blake Parker summoned their deepest voices and yelled, “We’re nasty” on a bus trip to the stadium. It became a thing, and it made Bedrosian cackle every time. Skaggs kept using the phrase after victories, yelling it while bounding up the dugout steps. It has since become the team’s rallying cry, emblazoned on red T-shirts and plastered across a wall in their clubhouse.
After completing an on-field interview following Friday’s no-hitter, Pena, who pitched the final seven innings, returned to the microphone, made sure the camera was still rolling and yelled, “We’re nasty,” igniting a roar from the 43,140 fans in attendance.
By late Sunday afternoon, the shrine in front of the main gate of Angel Stadium had grown to somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 caps and 100 posters, some of which read statements like “best curveball ever” and “the brightest stars burn the fastest” and “we’re all going to miss you.”
“Our fans,” Angels general manager Billy Eppler said, “are extremely loyal and protective.”
The team preserved Skaggs’ locker and placed the game ball from the no-hitter on its top shelf. All of the players signed two Skaggs jerseys, which will be given to Debbie and Carli. A “45” patch will appear on their uniforms for what remains of this season, as will an image of Skaggs that looks on from the center-field wall.
Several members of the Angels learned that Skaggs had been found dead in his Southlake, Texas, hotel room while boarding the bus to prepare for their game against the Texas Rangers. Foul play wasn’t initially suspected and suicide was quickly ruled out, but the cause of death won’t be revealed until an autopsy is completed in early October.
Major League Baseball canceled that day’s game, and Globe Life Park featured Skaggs’ “45” on the pitcher’s mound the following afternoon. Elsewhere, the likes of Patrick Corbin, Trevor Bauer and Chase Anderson staged their own tributes while they pitched. Heaney began a start with a loopy curveball to honor Skaggs, and Trout played in the All-Star Game wearing the No. 45.
Skaggs’ likeness was displayed on a wall in Venice Beach, California, and on the cleats of former teammate Hector Santiago, who now plays for the Chicago White Sox. Several moments of silence were held in honor of Skaggs; countless players immortalized him through messages on their social media accounts.
Said Eppler: “I’ve really come to appreciate the reach of Tyler.”
The first pitch of Friday’s ninth inning was a chest-high, 89 mph fastball that Mariners outfielder Mac Williamson hit well to center field. Pena slumped his shoulders. He was almost certain the ball would travel for a home run, as did most of his teammates. But Garneau, stationed behind home plate, had a better view than anybody.
“We’re good,” Garneau yelled, prompting Pena to turn around and watch Trout settle in for a routine catch.
Two pitches later, Gordon hit a tapper to the left side that elicited anxiety. Twenty days earlier, in St. Louis, Pena fielded a bunt in almost the exact same spot and threw wildly to third base, prompting two runners to score. This time, he calmly retrieved the ball, spun and fired accurately to first base, retiring one of baseball’s fastest runners.
The last out came on the Mariners’ hardest-hit ball of the night. It was off the bat of Mallex Smith, a 101.7 mph one-hopper near second base. Luis Rengifo, who had just been inserted into the game, quickly ranged to his right, took the baseball off his chest, recovered and secured the out.
Rengifo instantly thought back to the fourth-inning throwing error he made on June 29. Skaggs turned to Rengifo after the play and said, “I got you.” Two batters later, he induced an inning-ending, 6-4-3 double play to escape damage.
“I’ll never forget that,” Rengifo said, pausing for a moment to gather himself. “It’s hard.”
Simmons felt uncommonly sore throughout Friday’s game. Given the sizeable lead, he thought about asking out to rest his body. The continuing no-hitter triggered an obligation to stay. Angels manager Brad Ausmus didn’t want to remove Thaiss for defense because he didn’t want to sap a young player’s confidence, but he made the move for Rengifo in the final inning. The magnitude of the moment swayed him.
Ausmus has since been overwhelmed by all the messages he has received from that game.
He called it “a silver lining for a dark cloud.”
“But I don’t know how it plays out from here. It’s a silver lining, but it’s also emotionally draining.”
Heaney, Skaggs’ best friend on the team, has lost loved ones before but has never experienced something that felt this senseless.
“There was no reason for his time to go,” Heaney said. “That’s the hardest part, really. Especially in a group like this, where you’re literally with these guys, your baseball family, for 10, 12 hours a day, every single day. You get halfway through the off-day and you’re enjoying it and you’re like, ‘F—, man, I just wanna go back to the guys. I wanna go back to the clubhouse.’ When that family dynamic gets disrupted, it just really throws everybody off.”
Heaney spent the first four days after Skaggs’ death unsuccessfully trying to keep himself from crying. By Saturday afternoon, however, he had brightened up. What unfolded the prior night had infused him with happiness in the wake of tragedy. It provided him with a cheerful memory to replace some of the bad thoughts that lingered following Skaggs’ death, a turn of events Heaney considered “emotionally therapeutic.”
“I think it was really just such a great thing for everybody to celebrate him, to honor him, to be able to have a moment in time that when you think back, it’s all positive, all happy,” Heaney said. “I think that’s going to be great for all of us.”
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