Sunday, November 28 2021
Angels first baseman Jared Walsh in action against the Seattle Mariners on Oct. 2, 2021, in Seattle.
Angels first baseman Jared Walsh makes a fielding play during a 6-4 loss to the Seattle Mariners on Saturday night. The first-time All-Star rebounded from a slump and is ending the season on a high note. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Jared Walsh cut off the question before it had even finished.

Asked recently about how he “kind of slumped” after the All-Star break this season, the Angels first baseman jumped in.

“You don’t need to preface with ‘kind of,’ ” he said with a good-natured laugh. “It was a slump.

Indeed, between July 16 and Aug. 18, Walsh was ice cold. He hit a woeful 12 for 65 in 18 games, collecting one double, no home runs and only five RBIs. He struck out 25 times and walked only six. For the first time since his breakthrough last September, he had to evaluate his game all over again.

“You naturally try to search,” Walsh, 28, said. “I’d go back to video from last September and be like, ‘Well, I was doing this,’ and you try doing different things.”

For some players in Walsh’s position, such struggles become an early career crossroads — the point at which initial success in the majors begins to fade and doubts about consistency and staying power begin to set in.

“A lot of times guys come up in the minor leagues never having struggled before,” manager Joe Maddon said. “And then they have their first one here and it can be destructive in a big way.”

That’s why, for all Walsh has accomplished in 2021 — earning an everyday big league role as well as his first All-Star selection and a central spot in the Angels’ future plans — the way he’s finishing the season might be among the most important developments.

Walsh’s late-season tear continued Saturday night, as he collected three hits, including a go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning. It wasn’t enough for the Angels, as they surrendered three runs in the bottom of the eighth to lose 6-4 to the Seattle Mariners — a result that keeps the Mariners’ playoff hopes alive entering the final day of the season.

Walsh is now batting .319 in his last 38 games, a stretch that includes 11 doubles, six homers, 25 RBIs and a much-improved 28-to-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He has gained a new sense of self-confidence — an affirmation that he can not only produce in the big leagues but also rebound from inevitable downswings.

The Angels' Jared Walsh watches his three-run home run against the Seattle Mariners in the eighth inning Oct. 2, 2021.The Angels' Jared Walsh watches his three-run home run against the Seattle Mariners in the eighth inning Oct. 2, 2021.

The Angels’ Jared Walsh watches his three-run home run in the eighth inning Saturday night. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

“I actually have thought about that,” Walsh said. “When you’re really going through the super-tough stretches, I don’t want to say it’s like, ‘Why am I being punished?’ But sometimes, you’re just like, ‘What’s going on?’

“But that’s it. You’ve got to be able to bounce back. And honestly, when it’s all said and done, I think it’s going to be a very positive thing for me because it made me understand about being consistent with my work on a day-to-day basis, knowing what I’m trying to achieve in warmups and batting practice and stuff like that.”

Outside of Shohei Ohtani’s historic two-way performance, Walsh’s emergence this season could have perhaps the biggest future implications for the Angels.

Without him, the Angels might have entered this offseason with a gaping hole at first base and a lineup in danger of looking perilously thin beyond Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and Ohtani.

They might have gone into free agency feeling the pressure to acquire another impact hitter, forced to potentially siphon away resources already needed to bolster the pitching staff and address an opening at shortstop.

They would have still been able to build a winning team, but the margin for error also would have been that much smaller, their other stars being asked to carry that much more of a load.

Instead, they now have another player who they believe will be part of their core. A cost-effective cornerstone who isn’t arbitration eligible until after next year and won’t be a free agent until 2026. A middle-of-the-lineup threat and positive clubhouse presence.

“Even when he was going badly, he still exudes confidence,” Maddon said. “You could feel it coming back at you, and you know it’s going to be OK. So actually, I think in a perverse way, it’s really good that he did [struggle] and now he’s figuring out on a major league level how to come out on the other side. I think it’s great.”

Maddon added: “He’s the kind of guy that can really be part of a strong leadership group here in the future. He’s got that within him.”

To Walsh, this still all feels a little new.

He still gets a kick out of signing autographs before games. He laughed when relaying a story about his girlfriend seeing his jersey being worn by fans.

“I’m like, that’s just bizarre, when I play on a team with Ohtani and Trout and all these other studs, why’d they have my jersey,” he joked. “But I’m thankful.”

Walsh still has plenty to improve too. While he ranks in the top 50 among qualified major league hitters in home runs (27), RBIs (82) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.832), he has also struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances and has struggled mightily against left-handed pitching with a .167 batting average.

While he has a solid .996 fielding percentage, some of his advanced defensive metrics aren’t as strong either.

Still, though, he has cemented his place as the Angels’ first baseman of the future, providing the latest piece of evidence Saturday night.

With the Angels trailing 3-1 in the eighth inning, Walsh got a first-pitch fastball from Mariners reliever Paul Sewald. He clobbered it, crushing a three-run blast that traveled 437 feet to right-center field to put the Angels in front and silence a sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park.

“In a hostile environment, to come up with a big hit is something special,” Walsh said.

The Angels’ lead didn’t last, as Steve Cishek was charged with three runs in the next half-inning, including a bases-loaded, two-run single by Mitch Haniger that put the Mariners back in front for good, leaving them one game back in the American League wild-card race entering Sunday’s finale.

The Angels hope to be in a similar position soon, to be playing meaningful games at the end of the season. They believe it’s something that can be within reach as soon as next year. And as they prepare to enter the offseason, Walsh’s continued growth is becoming an increasing source of optimism.

“It was a dream come true to finally play a season wire to wire, start to finish,” Walsh said. “I learned a lot and have a lot to improve on. But I think it’s going to be exciting times in Anaheim moving forward.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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