Despite recent setback, club not only confident in rookie, but relying on his success down stretch
By David Adler
In the Angels' 38 remaining regular-season games, Andrew Heaney may have seven more starts in a playoff race the Halos are currently losing. Three could come against teams the Angels trail in the American League West: the Rangers and Astros.
The Angels need Heaney -- a 24-year-old rookie, but also their most consistently effective pitcher since his callup June 24 -- to play a prominent role down the stretch. They need him, especially, to avoid meltdowns like Saturday's against the heavyweight Blue Jays, a 3 1/3-inning, eight-run struggle that was Heaney's first truly bad start as an Angel.
The fact that the Halos are relying on him so much at all is significant, as is the fact that they remain confident in Heaney's ability to beat a playoff team.
"We're all still comfortable that he can go out there and face this team again and pitch better than he did," manager Mike Scioscia said after Heaney's loss to Toronto. "If he's making his pitches and getting hit, then you're gonna have to question, 'Does his stuff match up against some teams?' But just the frequency of mistakes and missing spots was larger."
And Heaney has shown he can beat contenders with deep lineups. Over his 11 starts, Heaney held the Astros, Yankees and Rangers to four runs in 19 innings, a 1.89 ERA. That, too, is significant.
Five months ago, Heaney was a question mark. The team's top prospect heading into Spring Training, Heaney did not make the rotation. His delivery was misaligned, and his pitches were suffering.
"As we began Spring Training, it looked like he was gonna be more of a project, and it was gonna be more of a process than it turned out to be," Scioscia said.
Heaney straightened himself out with the organization's pitching coaches and debuted in June, when Jered Weaver went on the disabled list and Matt Shoemaker needed extra bullpen work. At the time, there was no guarantee Heaney would get a second start. But he pitched so well, he didn't leave the Angels a choice.
"Obviously it was circumstantial," Heaney said. "But at the same time, I think I knew I had an opportunity to seize that and pitch well and show what I can do."
Heaney entrenched himself in the Halos' rotation. The crucial improvements, catcher Chris Iannetta said, have been the arm-side command of his fastball and expansion of his slider into an effective even-count and two-strike pitch.
"The definition of his struggle, it wasn't big," Iannetta said. "The margin of where he was at and where he is now is pretty small. But sometimes it's tough to bridge that gap. It's a credit to his athletic ability and hard work that he was able to get there so quickly. He's a young, talented pitcher that can help any team win."
The command of Heaney's pitches flows from his corrected mechanics.
"I'm able to repeat, and then you start getting your mental image of what you're trying to do out there, and you can almost see what you do before you do it," Heaney said. "When you get that in your mind, it's just like riding a bike, being able to get that ball in there."
What Heaney could do better, at times, is read the game situation -- maximize the execution of the game plan, throw the right pitch to the right batter and avoid setting himself up to get hurt.
"It's when to go to his offspeed pitches in certain situations, and when to stick with a fastball -- just a matter of reading hitters and things of that nature," said Weaver, a 10-year veteran and a master of sequencing.
That's what plagued Heaney against the Blue Jays, but the Angels believe it won't haunt him. They believe he'll continue to be the pitcher who's allowed two runs or fewer in nine of 11 starts.
"Andrew, just getting to the big leagues and pitching for a team that has playoff aspirations, I think his makeup's fine," Scioscia said. "There's always potential distractions -- it could be a pennant race, it could be a lineup. You're never gonna know the answers until you experience it."
David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.