The Los Angeles Angels need this to be a corner turned.
C.J. Wilson gave the Angels the kind of dominant performance Wednesday night they believed they were buying before the 2012 season when they signed the lefty to a five-year, $77.5 million contract. Since the signing, Wilson has been a major disappointment despite a not-terrible 3.89 ERA in 95 starts heading into Wednesday’s game against the Seattle Mariners.
In his latest outing, Wilson pitched seven shutout innings, striking out seven and allowing just one hit. With the help of another meltdown by the Oakland A’s bullpen, the Angels clinched their first American League West title since 2009.
With October less than a couple of weeks away, it was Wilson’s most promising start of the season.
Major development for #Angels tonight. CJ Wilson looking and feeling like himself. Shot in the arm, right on time.— Lyle Spencer (@LyleMSpencer) September 18, 2014
The CJ Wilson the #Angels will need in the playoffs has shown up in the first three innings tonight. 9 up, 9 down; 28 pitches.— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) September 18, 2014
If this is the C.J. Wilson the Angels are going to get in the playoffs, the rotation will be fine. And while it will miss Garrett Richards no matter what, his season-ending injury won’t devastate the team’s World Series chances as long as Jered Weaver, Matt Shoemaker and Wilson are throwing like front-line starters.
Since Richards' knee injury on Aug. 20, the Angels’ rotation has held up fine and the team has gone 20-7, although now there is more concern as Shoemaker has a strained muscle in his side and will miss his next start Saturday.
If that injury lingers into next month, it makes Wilson’s spot in the rotation infinitely more important as the magnifying glass will be put to his postseason exploits with the Texas Rangers. In 10 playoff appearances, Wilson is 1-5 with a 4.82 ERA and 1.433 WHIP and has allowed 10 home runs as the only Angels starter with World Series experience.
Wilson has now won three of his four September starts, but before Wednesday’s gem, his ERA in those previous three starts was 6.14; opponents hit .317 against him and .400 on balls put into play. In Wilson’s last 13 starts before Wednesday, dating back to June 24—a stint on the disabled list limited him to two July starts—he had a 6.64 ERA and opponents hit .333/.414/.484 against him while he struck out 49, walked 35 and gave up eight homers in 62 1/3 innings.
He also leads the AL with 78 walks this season.
All of that led manager Mike Scioscia to express serious concern about Wilson in the middle of that ugly stretch that included only three quality starts.
“This is probably the worst C.J. has struggled since he’s been a starting pitcher, so naturally you’re concerned,” Scioscia told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times last month. “There’s certainly been some head-scratching over his last seven or eight starts.”
That is why Wilson’s latest start is so important beyond being the division-clinching victory. His success is no longer just a luxury or icing for the Angels. For the first time, this team is truly going to need Wilson to be the sort of top-of-the-rotation starter they expected him to be when they committed to him at the winter meetings of 2011.
That contract is back-loaded, so Wilson will make $18 million next season and $20 million in 2016. That is the kind of money earmarked for aces, not guys putting up ERAs north of six.
But one October, one big run, one month of lights-out stuff can completely change the perception of Wilson as an Angel and as a postseason bust. It can also change perception that Wilson’s contract is little more than him swiping money from an organization badly in need of a return on its investment.
The Angels have lost three-fifths of their rotation since the start of the season—Tyler Skaggs, Richards and Shoemaker—and they have been in starter-by-committee mode since Richards went down.
While that has worked so far, mainly because the Angels have scored 17 runs in their three wins in the five times Richards’ spot has come up since his injury, if they have to do it in October, the odds are stacked against continued success. It is also sapping the bullpen, and come postseason, they don’t need that group to be worn out.
An effective Wilson and healthy Shoemaker behind Weaver would turn a weak playoff rotation into a formidable one.
If Wilson can be one of the guys to pick up this rotation when it matters most, he can make himself a legend in Orange County. Wednesday night, Wilson’s best start of the season, gives hope that he can accomplish that goal.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.