7/25/2014 10:15 P.M. ET
Nathan leans on sharp slider to strike out side
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- Joe Nathan has been around the American League long enough to remember when the Rally Monkey first became a thing.
"Yeah, I don't stare at the thing," Nathan said. "It's a known fact that if you catch eyeballs with the monkey, something bad's going to happen. So you have to keep your head down. I've seen it way too many times where I watch the video and I laugh and all of a sudden, 'Aw, man.'"
If he keeps throwing sliders like the ones he threw Thursday night, he won't have to think about superstitions. His ninth inning barely lasted long enough for the Angels to get a Rally Monkey clip on the scoreboard.
He struck out the side in order for just the second time this season, and he needed just 12 pitches -- nine of them strikes -- to do it. The same reliever who drew just six swings and misses over seven innings from May 12-28 drew six whiffs in his latest inning alone. Four of those came on a slider that has become a project of his in recent weeks.
"That was as long as I've seen his slider, I think all year possibly," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It was clear that the hitters weren't picking up the rotation on his slider. It looked like a fastball to them and they swung right over the top.
"That's the slider I remember facing. It looks like a fastball coming in at the bottom of the strike zone, and you start your swing and it just drops out of the strike zone. It almost has a split-finger action to it."
That's the idea.
"I threw the slider in some pretty good spots to make it tough for them to lay off," Nathan said, "but also with two strikes being able to put it in a place."
It also was a difference in mechanics, and not just the lower arm angle he utilized earlier.
"I've been tweaking mechanics and working on different things," he said. "Each time out there, I've had a chance to work on it and get more and more comfortable with it. Now I'm getting to the point where you can get away from mechanics and stop thinking about that."
This would be a good time for that. Thursday's gem came hours after Joakim Soria joined the team following his trade from Texas. He was a closer with the Rangers but set up for Nathan over the second half last season.
Nathan entered Friday having drawn swings and misses on 35.6 percent of his sliders this year (37 whiffs out of 104 swings), up slightly from his 2013 rate in Texas (63 out of 186, 33.9 percent) according to STATS. However, hitters are chasing his slider out of the strike zone a little less often than in 2013.
Hunter soaring this month after gloomy June
ANAHEIM -- Torii Hunter felt like he had this swing in him when he was struggling through June, heading into July with his average under .250. Keep hitting the ball hard, he told himself, and the results will come.
They've been here for most of July.
"The numbers didn't show, but I was killing the ball," Hunter said. "I wasn't changing for nothing. You saw the 0-for-4, but I had four bullets, and I said I have to keep that going. And now it's dropping the last month or so."
Nobody in the American League with at least 70 at-bats in July entering Friday had a higher OPS for the month than Hunter's 1.058 clip. His .357 batting average ranked fifth in that group, while his .671 slugging percentage trailed only Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen among Major League regulars.
Eleven of Hunter's first 25 hits in July went for extra bases, including five doubles, five homers and a triple. In most cases, those extra bases have come off line drives he has pulled toward the gap or into the left-field corner.
"He swung the bat pretty well when he came back and wasn't getting many hits," manager Brad Ausmus said, "but there was a point a couple homestands ago when he was really working on getting his weight [balance] back, loading his hands, getting his hands and weight back and driving the ball. He's certainly done that."
That's something he was working on while he was still out with hamstring issues a month ago. He kept it up once he returned.
Both Ausmus and Hunter suggest the move down the batting order has nothing to do with it. That said, he's batting .290 in the fifth spot, 26 points higher than he has hit this season batting second. His OPS, however, is higher in the second spot (.778) than fifth (.754).
Scherzer reworks changeup, sees more whiffs
ANAHEIM -- Normally, starting pitchers spend the day before a start simply keeping their arm fresh, putting the finishing touches on their game plan rather than working on anything major. Max Scherzer, however, had a changeup to his plan Thursday, literally.
He credits that pitch with making a difference for him in the Tigers' 6-4 victory over the Angels that night.
"I made an adjustment [Wednesday] on my changeup I've been searching for," he said. "I haven't been getting the swings and misses I've been looking for on that pitch. I made a little adjustment on my grip, and I felt like I had a lot more consistency with it and it had a lot more downward action, and I was able to collect some swings and misses and strikeouts with that pitch."
Scherzer threw 19 changeups Thursday, according to data from MLB.com's Gameday program and brooksbaseball.net. Angels hitters missed on four of their 10 swings against it, as many whiffs as he drew from 54 fastballs and more than he drew from 19 sliders.
For the season, Scherzer has gotten swings and misses on just under a third of his changeups -- 32.8 percent -- including 23 percent of the changeups he has thrown in the strike zone, according to STATS. Both rates are up from last season.