The game’s undisputed best player is Mike Trout, the sensational two-time MVP center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels.
On Wednesday night, little-known Jose Leclerc made him look lost at the plate.
To Trout’s credit, he had never faced Leclerc, who made his major-league debut last season. He had never seen the wiry right-hander blow a 95-mph past him or throw two cut changeups that he chased in the dirt.
One, two, three strikes, and Trout was out in arguably the tightest spot in Leclerc’s career. All he had to do next was retire Albert Pujols, the three-time National League MVP, and he did so on a first-pitch pop out to center field.
Leclerc emerged as the hero for the Texas Rangers in an 8-3 victory in which several players made significant contributions. A.J. Griffin allowed three runs in six innings, Jeremy Jeffress retired all four batters he faced, and Mike Napoli, Elvis Andrus and Carlos Gomez went deep.
But Leclerc, who quickly disposed of two of the game’s top run producers in four pitches and then went on to pitch a scoreless ninth inning for his first career save and the Rangers’ first save of the season, drew the most praise after a much-needed victory.
“It was one of those moments where we watch a young kid kind of grow up in front of our eyes,” manager Jeff Banister said. “He’s very calm on the mound and throwing strikes and using his stuff. He had to face the heart of their lineup, so he made some great pitches against Trout and a great pitch against Pujols.
“He doesn’t have many appearances in the big leagues, so being able to stay calm, throw strikes and utilize his stuff in that situation shows a lot of poise.”
Banister wasn’t ready to anoint Leclerc as the Rangers’ closer or as anything. In fact, had the Rangers not scored twice in the ninth, Tony Barnette would have been called upon for the final three outs.
But the outing will help Leclerc continue to get the ball in high-leverage situations. He has shown a knack for not being bothered in the few instances in his career when he has needed to come up big.
“There’s an equity of trust that goes into success situations for young guys like this,” Banister said. “Every time he goes out we’re developing the known. Prior to this, it was the unknown. They are building confidence, not only in themselves but there teammates, myself and the coaching staff.”
Griffin gave the Rangers gave the Rangers a quality start despite allowing three runs in the first three innings. But he posted zeroes in his final three innings before giving way to Jeffress with a 6-3 lead.
Without Sam Dyson, who is working on his mechanic, and Matt Bush, who left the team Tuesday for an exam on his shoulder, Jeffress was asked to get four outs in the seventh and eighth before Alex Claudio allowed a double to Kole Calhoun.
Trout was next, but he was gone in three Leclerc pitches. Pujols and the Angels’ eighth were finished off in one. Leclerc pitched around a leadoff single in the ninth.
“What I need is to throw strikes,” Leclerc said. “My changeup, it cuts. That’s the best pitch in my repertoire. I got a little nervous, but I took a little break and said, ‘Just throw strikes.’ ”
Leclerc success since spring training has started with commanding the strike zone, something hadn’t done well last season or coming up through the minors. But some mechanical changes have him in a better position to get ahead of hitters.
“Live fastball,” said Angels outfielder Ben Revere, who grounded out in the ninth. “Threw me a changeup I grounded out on. It seems like he’s got a good live arm. He seems like a good pitcher.”
The Rangers opened the scoring with homers by Napoli and Andrus for 2-0 lead that Griffin quickly gave back in the bottom half. Trout homered with two outs in the third to give the Angels their only lead of the game.
Gallo came through in the fifth with a triple into the right-field corner after Jonathan Lucroy and Andrus reached to start the inning. Jurickson Profar was next, and his first hit of the season was an RBI single.
Gomez snapped an 0-for-16 skid in the seventh with a long homer to left. Odor put the game away in the ninth when his drive to right-center eluded the dive of Calhoun and allowed Nomar Mazara and Napoli to scramble home.
Leclerc came back for the final three outs, his first career save and future chances to pitch in key spots.
“I’ve never been in that situation,” Leclerc said. “I think it was the chance they gave me. I’m trying to take advantage to the maximum.”