ANAHEIM, Calif. – Over the past 2 ½ weeks, while he was batting little more than a buck-and-a-half and striking out in more than a third of his at-bats, his team, the Los Angeles Angels, was winning 11 of 16 games and actually gaining ground on the Oakland A's.
Mike Trout even slumps better than anybody else.
On Friday, a day after he beat the Tampa Bay Rays with a three-run, walk-off home run, he dismissed his personal (and brief) offensive struggle with a smile and a shrug. He's too upright in the box, he said. His head is moving too much. Something about his setup doesn't feel quite right. But, he said, he's good. He's fine. It'll come, 'cause it always has, and it's May, and these things happen, and another at-bat is half-an-hour or so away, and the Angels are winning some anyway.
"That's all that matters," he said. "You know what I'm sayin'?"
And here's the thing – the next at-bat might be in the ninth inning, a couple guys on, the Angels down a couple runs, maybe the crowd wondering why Mike Trout is scuffling some, but not Mike Trout, and then everything changes anyway.
"If he's frustrated," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "he's not showing it."
Late Thursday night, Trout, having lost about 60 points to his batting average since the final days of April and having struck out a couple times to push his major league-leading total to 52, stood in the on-deck circle waiting for the Tampa Bay Rays to transition from Grant Balfour to Brad Boxberger. Balfour, he knew: In six at-bats, he was hitless with four strikeouts against him. Boxberger? He had nothing. No at-bats. No real feel. Good fastball and slider. Really good changeup. For Trout, there's maybe a win out there somewhere.
"You're telling yourself you want that shot," Trout said. "Just try to square-up a ball. A big, big moment for me and the team. Look, you can ask any hitter, nobody's going to shy down from the moment."
So Boxberger, who a week before came into a bases-loaded mess against the Baltimore Orioles and struck out the side on nine pitches, started Trout with a changeup, unintentionally fat. In this league, you don't get a lot of 80-mph pitches down the middle. But, they do happen.
"Oh," Trout thought, "that was a good pitch to hit."
Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan asked for another changeup, but below the knees.
In the first-base dugout, Rays manager Joe Maddon was thinking strikeout. Albert Pujols was on deck. The inning was scary enough as it was, and the Rays, straining to keep up in even a watered-down AL East, couldn't waste big leads in the ninth. A tie would be bad – the Rays' bullpen already had thrown more innings than any in the American League – and a loss, of course, would be worse.
"I didn't want to see any contact whatsoever," Maddon said. "And Boxy's gotten really good at missing bats."
Boxberger's second changeup indeed arrived under the strike zone. Reading fastball initially, Trout tapped his front foot and uncoiled and started his hands and stopped.
"I really saw that one," Trout said.
Hanigan read something different, however. Hesitation, perhaps? Was Trout fooled?
"He broke down," Hanigan said. "He fished for it a little bit."
"No," Trout said, "I saw the second one good."
The count was 1-and-1. Collin Cowgill led off first base, Efren Navarro off third. In one of those early-season, small-sample oddities, Trout stood there batting .194 with runners in scoring position. All of last season he hit .324 in those spots. The season before that? Yeah, .324.
"It's not a prolonged period of time," Scioscia said. "It's part of the ebb and flow of the season. … Maybe he's been a little bit, a little, caught in between.
"I would say this: If we're worried about Mike Trout, we're going to be in trouble. Safe to say he's going to be all right."
With that, Scioscia went on for a while about Trout. You know, during this 15-game slump, he's driven in 11 runs. He's scored six. He's stolen two bases. In center field, his speed allows the corner men to fan toward the lines. Scioscia is convinced that takes hits away, or at least bases. On the basepaths, he forces pitchers to slide-step, delivering shorter fastballs to the next guy.
"It's why he's such a dangerous player," Scioscia said.
Sorting through all of that, Hanigan asked Boxberger for one more changeup. That would be three in a row. Trout couldn't recall ever seeing three changeups in a row before. He'd look fastball. Thinking along, Maddon was good with it.
"I'll never denigrate the changeup in that situation," he said.
So along came the changeup. It wasn't down in the zone like the previous one. It was more like the first one. Maybe one swing of the bat changes everything. Seven for his last 50, struggling for half-a-month, too tall in the box, too loose with his head, Trout barely felt the ball leave his bat.
"It didn't work out," Hanigan said. "It happens. I think right there was probably a mistake."
The ball slammed into the wall in the Angels' bullpen, 433 feet from Hanigan and Trout. Angels players, coaches, even Scioscia himself, gathered at the plate. Trout arrived a short time later, and with him a 6-5 win, their 11th since Trout went cold, and maybe their first since Trout started getting back to being Trout again.
"Short approach," Trout said. "Stay in my legs."
Think short, think small, think fastball. Ride it out. Keep winning. Count it up at the end. He smiled, shrugged.
"It's baseball," he said.
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