Before this summer, the last time Joe Maddon managed Tommy La Stella in a regular-season game the infielder didn’t play regularly.
La Stella had carved out a niche for himself as a pinch-hitting specialist for Maddon’s Chicago Cubs. He thrived off the bench, batting .278 with a .394 OBP from 2014 to 2018. In his final year in Chicago, he tied for the major league lead with 11 pinch-hit RBIs.
La Stella, of course, is more than a year removed from graduating from that role.
But Maddon, now the Angels' manager, wasn't working with La Stella during his 2019 breakout.
On Monday night, a walk-off, two-run homer off San Francisco Giants closer Trevor Gott reinforced why La Stella shouldn’t be relegated to pinch-hitter.
On a 1-2 count, La Stella scooped a low-hanging 83 mph curveball onto the head of his bat and sent the pitch soaring 381 feet to right field. As he followed David Fletcher home, La Stella beamed at the teammates who were assembling to congratulate him. The homer secured a 7-6 victory and snapped a four-game losing streak.
“I think that the role I was in Chicago, pinch-hitting, coming off the bench, didn’t really lend itself to trying to drive the ball as much,” La Stella said in a postgame videoconference. “Usually facing a guy late in the game, [who’s] throwing hard. I haven't seen a pitch all game so I'm just trying to put together a decent at bat. … So I think the opportunity allowed me to remember the way I used to approach a game getting four and five [at-bats]. Taking some chances here and there.”
The home run was La Stella’s second of the year.
La Stella provided plenty of pop in his All-Star campaign last summer. He batted .300, belted 16 homers and drove in 44 runs before fouling a ball off his shin a week before the All-Star Game. The right tibia fracture required more than two months of recovery time. He completed his rehabilitation in time to play two of the final three games of the season.
La Stella reiterated in training camp that those at-bats allowed him to bury the mental image of the errant foul tip.
He approached the offseason with zeal, working diligently with Angels strength coach Lee Fiocchi and improving his flexibility. After the coronavirus outbreak forced sports to shut down in March, La Stella returned to the same schedule he kept in the winter.
The focus was the same each season — to improve.
“He's just gotten stronger, taking better care of himself,” Maddon said. “He wants to do this. There's a lot of internal focus, he's got a plan, got some goals. So what he's doing right now is not a huge surprise to me. I've seen it. The at-bats are as good as you've seen.”
La Stella isn't struggling to shake off the rust. In 20 games, he's been held hitless only six times.
The only thing missing? Home runs.
Before Monday night, La Stella wasn’t elevating pitches as he did last year. His average launch angle had dipped slightly to 11.9 degrees.
“I think with Tommy, once he clicks one, he's going to start hitting several,” Maddon said Aug. 9. “That's it. I don't see anything different. He’s got really good force in his swing. He looks normal to me.”
La Stella, who is batting .290 with an .846 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, said that he put pressure on himself to drive the ball recently. He had to adjust his approach.
“I did feel myself, as of late, starting to press a little bit to drive the ball a little more and maybe swinging at some pitches that I wouldn't ordinarily swing at,” he said. “So just had to go back and simplify it and remember to just get a good pitch and the results should take care of themselves.”
The results finally emerged Monday in the form of the first walk-off homer of his career.
“Seven,” La Stella said when asked if he remembered the last time he ended the game with a long ball. “A little bit of a layoff in between the two.”