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‘He’s here with us’ — How the Angels honored Tyler Skaggs with an emotional, historic tribute

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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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Cervelli (3 hits, 3 RBIs) sparks Braves in debut

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NEW YORK — Newly signed Francisco Cervelli had three hits and three RBIs in his Atlanta debut, and the Braves beat the New York Mets 9-5 on Saturday night for their seventh straight victory.

The veteran catcher, released Thursday by Pittsburgh, signed with the first-place Braves earlier Saturday to help fill in with Brian McCann on the injured list.

After recovering from yet another concussion, Cervelli played his first major league game since May 25. The veteran backstop stroked a two-run double on the second pitch he saw for a 2-0 lead in the second inning.

“I was playing like a little kid,” Cervelli said. “That’s all that matters, man. From now on, just enjoy every game, every opportunity, and do what I have to do.”

He singled his next time up and added an RBI double to deep center in the ninth.

“Hasn’t played in three months, comes out and gets three knocks. Just makes it look that easy,” Billy Hamilton, another recent Braves addition, said.

From his knees, Cervelli also threw out Amed Rosario trying to steal second in a tie game in the seventh.

“He was excited about getting here — and it showed,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said.

About two hours before the game, Cervelli said he was still waiting for his catching equipment to arrive at Citi Field.

Atlanta will pay Cervelli $110,403, a prorated portion of the $555,000 major league minimum. That is offset against his $11.5 million salary in the final season of the $31 million, three-year contract with Pittsburgh that he was released from.

Cervelli, 33, joined the Braves at Citi Field and batted seventh against Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler. Snitker said Cervelli will split playing time with Tyler Flowers behind the plate and likely remain with the club when McCann returns because by then rosters will have expanded in September.

Cervelli has dealt with multiple concussions this season and batted .193 with one home run and five RBIs in 34 games for the Pirates. He recently completed a minor league rehab assignment that began Aug. 11 at Double-A Altoona in the Pittsburgh organization. He played one game there and then caught six games at Triple-A Indianapolis.

“I’m not a little kid anymore, so I kind of know exactly what I need and how many games,” Cervelli said before Saturday’s game. “I’ve been working so hard besides the game for a long time to get back at my best.”

Cervelli acknowledged that two months ago, he was a little jittery about catching again after his most recent concussion in May. A report suggested he didn’t plan to go back behind the plate, but Cervelli insisted he didn’t say that — someone else did.

After working out in the infield, he moved back to catcher in the minors. He said he was bored at other positions and threw away his infield glove.

“I’m not a baseball player. I’m a catcher,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 17 years and that’s all I’m going to do. And, I like to be behind the plate. It sounds crazy, but I like to get hit and do my thing. So, I’m here now.”

He said he quietly underwent a new therapy with a new doctor and is feeling good.

“I put everything I had,” said Cervelli, the Pirates’ Opening Day catcher each of the past five years.

Cervelli began the night a .269 career hitter with 36 home runs and 261 RBIs in 700 major league games. His .362 on-base percentage in 450 games with Pittsburgh was second among big league catchers during that span to San Francisco’s Buster Posey (.368).

To make roster room for Cervelli, the Braves optioned catcher Alex Jackson to Triple-A Gwinnett and transferred left-hander Grant Dayton to the 60-day injured list.

Cervelli, from Venezuela, spent the first seven years of his career with the New York Yankees and played in 42 games for the 2009 World Series champions.

“I feel like a lucky man,” he said. “Just the fact that I went to Triple-A and played baseball. It doesn’t matter what it is. I played there like a kid again, and now I feel more grateful just to get picked up by a team who is in first place and they like to win. That’s the whole idea.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Indians’ Ramirez fractures bone in hand, on IL

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Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez has been diagnosed with a fractured hamate bone in his right hand and has been placed on the injured list, the team announced Sunday.

Ramirez, a two-time All-Star, had an MRI after he exited in the first inning of Saturday’s game against Kansas City after fouling off a pitch.

“We’re really sad because Jose is a happy guy and you guys know that we definitely need him,” said teammate Franmil Reyes after Cleveland’s 4-2 win.

“We need his defense, we need his offense, and he’s a great guy. It seemed like he was in a lot of pain. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope everything is good.”

Indians manager Terry Francona said Ramirez has been dealing with a sore wrist, but the injury occurred in a different area of the joint. The 26-year-old was not wearing a protective brace in the clubhouse and did not speak with the media.

Ramirez is batting .254 with 20 homers and 75 RBIs in 126 games. Utilityman Mike Freeman replaced him and had two hits and an RBI.

In a corresponding move, the Indians called up infielder Yu Chang from Triple-A Columbus.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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‘I get myself in trouble’ — Kenley Jansen adapts to his suddenly hittable cutter

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LOS ANGELES — It was the ninth inning, his Los Angeles Dodgers were leading by a run, and Kenley Jansen reared back and overmatched Randal Grichuk with three consecutive cutters on Wednesday night. The turn of events emboldened Jansen, instantly bringing him back to another time, when his cutter was virtually unhittable and secondary pitches were often unnecessary.

“F— it, it’s here,” Jansen thought. “Let’s go.”

Six of Jansen’s next eight pitches were, predictably, cutters. The last of those — traveling 93 mph, tailing middle-in — was sent well over the right-field fence for a game-tying home run by Toronto Blue Jays slugger Rowdy Tellez, handing Jansen another blown save in what has become another turbulent season.

Jansen was serenaded by boos as he retreated to the home dugout. Moments later, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts was pushing against the idea of a change at closer. The following afternoon, Jansen was lamenting his mindset. The right-hander knows the cutter is no longer untouchable, and he understands the need to incorporate his slider and fastball more frequently — and yet sometimes he just can’t help himself.

“Sometimes I get myself in trouble, because when I blow hitters out like that with a few pitches, it’s like, ‘Aw, s—, I got it today,'” Jansen said. “And it’s like, ‘Hey, use your mind.’ It gave me all the signs to change yesterday, and I didn’t do it. You know what? It’s OK. It’s a mistake, you learn from it, let’s go. No excuses, man. No excuses from me. And I’m not gonna lose confidence, at all, in myself.”

But the fan base might be starting to lose confidence, an apprehension rooted in part by the Dodgers’ relative inactivity before the July 31 trade deadline. The first-place Dodgers never acquired another dominant, late-inning reliever, placing increasingly more pressure on Jansen, who has at times wavered.

His ERA, despite a somewhat encouraging 21-pitch save in Saturday’s victory over the New York Yankees, stands at a career-high 3.62. His six blown saves this season are topped by just five other relievers, only one of whom is a current closer. From 2011 to 2017, opponents slugged .315 off Jansen’s cutter, a rate that fell 103 points below the major league average on all pitches. In 2018, it rose to .403. This year, it’s .465. The Dodgers want Jansen to incorporate other pitches and Jansen wants to comply, but the transition has proved difficult.

“I’ve never been great,” Roberts said, “so when you’re talking about somebody who has always been great, with one specific pitch, and when they know it’s coming and to still not hit it, and to have to go through that transition — it’s a transition. I think he’s understanding that you can be just as effective as you have been in the past, but sequencing is a part of that process.”

The Dodgers met with Jansen late into Wednesday night in part to emphasize that point. Jansen, 31, was apologetic for not straying from his cutter, an issue that has materialized in multiple ninth innings this season. The meeting took place, Jansen said, because he is “sick and tired of just being angry,” the result of experiencing failure and confronting transition for the first time in his 10-year career.

“You just have to clear your mind, love the game again,” Jansen said. “I have love for the game. Be happy. Be happy when you go out there. And perform. Once I do that, man, it’s gonna be fun again.”

Jansen threw his cutter between 84% and 93% of the time each season from 2010 to 2018. This year, its usage is down to 76%. Over the past two months, it’s down to 65%. The velocity on the pitch has dropped a couple of ticks, down to 92 mph. But its effectiveness lies in its late life, which has at times been compromised by inconsistencies in Jansen’s delivery. Over the past three years, the pitch value on Jansen’s cutter, according to Pitch Info Solutions research, has dropped from 20.8 to 9.4 to minus-0.2.

Pedro Baez, continually booed before reemerging as a valuable weapon last season, and Joe Kelly, who has recovered from a brutal start to the 2019 season, came to the forefront of Jansen’s mind last week.

“They went through the same thing that I went through,” Jansen said, “and look at them.”

So, too, did Clayton Kershaw, who has found a way to remain a legitimate Cy Young contender despite pitching with a fastball that he often struggles to dial up to 90 mph.

“It’s a game of adjustments,” Jansen said, “and I can still be so damn good if I make the adjustments. I just gotta be a little more smart.”

Jansen resides at the heart of the Dodgers’ chances of capturing their first World Series title since 1988. In retrospect, the 2017 World Series, when he failed to close out two games, might have marked the beginning of a subtle decline. In a macro sense, Jansen has not been the same since, though a hamstring injury late last spring and an irregular heartbeat late last summer have certainly contributed. Jansen was adamant in saying that his inner belief has not wavered. He vowed to remain upbeat, but also to learn from past failures.

“I trust all my pitches — use them,” Jansen said. “The game will tell you when you have to change — be aware of it.”

Roberts believed Jansen’s cutters were well executed Wednesday — even the one that resulted in a tied game — but also said he “went to the well too many times,” noting that Jansen should have incorporated sliders into the Tellez at-bat. Asked the following day if he believes Jansen can be dominant again if he sequences adequately, Roberts answered sternly.

“I have no doubt,” he said. “I have no doubt in my mind.”

Two days later, Roberts experienced temporary validation. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the ninth on three well-placed grounders, but Jansen recorded back-to-back strikeouts of Mike Tauchman and Gary Sanchez to preserve a 2-1 lead and capture his 27th save. Jansen threw 11 cutters in the inning, but also seven fastballs and three sliders. Roberts said “the sequencing was better.”

Max Muncy, standing almost directly behind Jansen while shifted up the middle as the second baseman, saw Jansen reach the mid-90s with his cutter on the final two pitches and found them to be “really, really sharp.”

“If we can find a way to get that going,” Muncy said, “we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”

Jansen is quick to acknowledge the advancements of his sport and why relying on only one pitch is becoming imprudent. He welcomed the recent boos from the home crowd, but he vowed to change the narrative.

“Give me the tough love,” he said. “I’ll make sure you love me again.”

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