The side-slingin’ lefty closer who's helping Texas in jumbled AL wild-card race

Tim Brown
MLB columnist

Depending on one’s point of view, the American League wild-card race is the best of a game at its most inclusive or a participation ribbon for chasing summer’s day butterflies, neither of which matters at the moment.

With something less than a quarter of the season remaining, here’s what we’ve got:

Six teams either out in front or within two games of a qualifying position.

Two more teams within two games of that.

Another team within three games.

That’s nine, all with something from a competitive advantage to a legitimate shot to well-at-least-four-of-those-teams-are-going-to-have-to-get-hit-by-a-farm-combine-but-we-can-dream.

Through that lens, pitcher Alex Claudio flitted to the mound late Monday night in Anaheim. Texas Rangers manager Jeff Banister had waved him in, handed him the baseball and asked him to get four outs, to herd their unruly season a little closer to September. A big-boy moment, to be sure, for a ballclub that a few weeks ago was so reasonably convinced about the future of its season it had traded Yu Darvish to Los Angeles (and yet held on to Andrew Cashner and Carlos Gomez, because you never know.) But here were the Rangers, four outs and a few inches away from .500, from the sort of win they’re going to need a lot of between now and October.

And here was Claudio, a side-slingin’ lefty who later admitted he hasn’t thrown a four-seam fastball since 2015, whose sinkerball doesn’t scare 90, who flicks at and teases the strike zone with sinkers, sliders, changeups and various articles of funk, who eventually arrived at Mike Trout with Albert Pujols on deck and calmly thought to himself, “Oh, [expletive] …”

Claudio, 25, saved his first big-league game three and a half months ago. He saved his second a little more than a month ago. And now it’s a semi-regular thing, Alex Claudio in the ninth, because of circumstance and necessity and one infield collision and the fact Jeff Banister can’t believe the size of the nasties on this guy.

“That exactly,” Banister said later. “The ninth inning, closing games, is more mentality, more guts, more guile than it is stuff. This guy, he’s that gunslinger. You don’t want to meet him in the alley. You just might lose.”

What’s great about a pileup in the wild-card standings is a young man such as Claudio, toiling for a team that is straining to be this much better than just OK, so by definition not blessed with one-to-25 seamlessness. There will be holes. There will be men batting where they probably shouldn’t be, defending ground that is not their usual home, and maybe finding themselves in those times. There will be managers just a bit short in the roster, thinking these things through, staring into the eyes of a 25-year-old a little lean on velocity or experience and yet stout in heart, and, man, just living with the decision that jumps out of his mouth.

“The bullpen works a lot easier when you have the eighth- and ninth-inning lock-down guys,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia had said earlier, because he’s chuckin’ and duckin’ himself most nights, like Banister. “Life’s a lot easier and the manager looks a lot smarter.”

Alex Claudio is a guy with the courage to throw strikes and close games when the best at his job throw 15 mph harder. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)

Claudio smiled broadly late Monday night. He’d thrown 30 pitches for those four outs. Trout had singled in a run on a 70-mph changeup with two out in the ninth. Pujols had grounded to first base on an 87-mph sinker for the final out and Claudio’s seventh career save.

“No,” he said, “never,” when asked if he could have conceived of himself – a 27th-round draft pick out of Puerto Rico seven years ago who was so light on fastball he simply gave it up – closing games in late August on a big-league mound.

“I never think of that,” he said, speaking excitedly over his translator.

He grew up in Juncos as a first baseman “with no power,” he pointed out, and discovered his path to professional baseball would be as a pitcher. He arrived in the major leagues in 2014, appeared in 39 games in 2016, mastered the sinker, got after the lefties (who’ve batted .161 against him in his career) with the slider and the righties with the changeup, and now he’s a guy with the courage to throw strikes and close games when the best at his job throw 15 mph harder.

“I have confidence in myself,” he said. “This is the moment. I’m here. Don’t look back.”

So, yeah, in Seattle a 31-year-old lefty named Andrew Albers, whose career win total was two (for the Minnesota Twins in 2013) before last week, has won twice for the Mariners since Aug. 15. A 23-year-old rookie right-hander named Keynan Middleton has saved two games and won two games (and blown two saves) in August for the Angels. A young man who was given up for done in Atlanta has won three games for the Minnesota Twins, so maybe Bartolo Colon has a little something left after all. Rookie right-hander Jake Junis, a 29th-round pick the year after Claudio went in the 27th round, has won twice for the Kansas City Royals since Aug. 6.

The world isn’t all powerhouses and run-away division leaders and sure-thing talents. Sometimes it’s about a man who learned something of his journey when it began in the 27th round, who decided he’d need a better way, who’d stand in the ninth inning against Trout, against Pujols, and decide it was they who were in trouble, not him. Who’d punch the sky twice when it was over.

“Just confidence,” he said. “Make pitches. That’s it.”

Banister grinned.

“Fun to watch,” he said.

***
INCOMING:

The Houston Astros seem to be composing themselves again after a bit of a post-deadline funk that actually had them losing a few games heading into the deadline too. Over two and a half weeks they lost two to the Detroit Tigers, three to the Tampa Bay Rays, three to the Chicago White Sox and two to the Texas Rangers, which cost them a handful of games in the AL West, which didn’t injure them at all, but probably felt a little squishy nevertheless.

In total, the second half hasn’t been good to the Astros. They have a losing record, for one. Their starters’ ERA has jumped a run. Their bullpen’s ERA is up. They’re not batting for average, for on-base percentage or for slugging like they did in the first half. Carlos Correa is on the disabled list. So is Lance McCullers. And Brian McCann. And Will Harris. Dallas Keuchel has made five starts since June 2.

These things happen. Better now than in a month.

The probables against the Angels:

Friday: Collin McHugh vs. Parker Bridwell

Saturday: Brad Peacock vs. Tyler Skaggs

Sunday: Charlie Morton vs. Ricky Nolasco

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