Monday night saw a hot competition in warm conditions in southern California, as Joe Blanton and the Angels played host to Luis Mendoza and the Royals. The Angels, predicted by many before the year to advance to the World Series, were looking to turn their fourth-place season around before a partisan audience. The Royals, predicted by many before the year to play the role of American League dark horse, were looking to keep the pressure up on the Central-favorite Tigers. The game was tight for all nine innings, as the 32,203 fans in attendance were treated to a duel, and in the end the Angels emerged victorious by a score of 0.79 to 0.12.
This was a game marked by excellent pitching, as neither the Angels nor the Royals allowed a single home run, or even one single walk. For the Angels, Blanton started before yielding to Michael Roth and Robert Coello. For the Royals, Mendoza would yield to former starter Luke Hochevar. While the game was therefore light on star power, at least on the mound, those who pitched pitched like aces, with the Angels ultimately only squeaking by.
Free-agent acquisition Blanton turned in his best start of the young year. The steady veteran got off to a rough start with the Angels, but on Monday he proved himself nearly unhittable. Said Blanton afterward:
“I felt like I threw the ball good tonight,” Blanton said.
Added his manager:
“Joe looks like he is making better starts,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Blanton was removed after reaching 99 pitches. To that point, he’d registered a season-high 17 swinging strikes, beating his previous high by seven. Before Monday, the last time Blanton generated so many swinging strikes was July 16, 2010. Blanton also threw two-thirds of his pitches for strikes, ending up with zero walks and seven whiffs. Below, you can watch all seven of Blanton’s strikeouts from Monday, each of them of the swinging variety:
Blanton’s best weapon was his dynamite changeup, which gave the young Royals lineup fits. That pitch accounted for a dozen of Blanton’s swinging strikes generated, and with strikes, whiffs, and an assortment of grounders, Blanton was at his best. Never was he better than he was in the top of the second, when he struck out Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Salvador Perez in order. Chris Getz in the third snapped a streak of four consecutive strikeouts by Blanton, who isn’t ordinarily thought of as a strikeout pitcher.
The strikeouts caused Blanton’s pitch count to rise in a hurry, explaining his early exit. It was as if he took a page out of the Rich Harden playbook. Roth opened the door for the Royals, but he struck out two in the seventh, while Coello struck out two in both the eighth and the ninth. With the stakes at their highest, Angels pitchers didn’t give Royals hitters much of an opportunity, and at no point were the Royals able to clear the fence. They couldn’t, in short, provide for their pitchers any support, with the Angels’ arms keeping the bats guessing.
On the other side, there wasn’t much done — there was only just enough for the Angels to squeeze by by the slimmest of margins. The thumping Angels lineup didn’t provide any souvenirs, and they swung themselves out of potential walks. Mendoza struck out a batter in the first, another in the third, two in the fourth, one in the fifth, and one in the sixth. Hochevar, for his part, relieved with four more strikeouts in three frames. Royals pitchers, then, combined for ten strikeouts in nine innings, three fewer than the Angels, but the fractional and evenly-distributed hits added up to just enough offense, leaving the Royals the hard-luck loser. It’s a continuation of a theme, as the Royals have pitched well to date but failed to hit well enough to take full advantage. The Angels offense had its biggest inning in the bottom of the second.
The Royals gambled that a young offense would take a step forward alongside an improved pitching staff. The lineup hasn’t yet held up its end of the bargain, but still the Royals remain well within the race, with the arms keeping the team afloat. On Monday, those arms gave the Royals a good chance to win, and there are clear positives to accompany the frustrating negatives.
Tuesday evening, the game balls will be handed to Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas. Mendoza will look to bounce back next time on the road against the Athletics, while Blanton will try to build off his success this coming weekend against the White Sox.
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