'A huge honor': Sandoval gets Opening Day nod for hometown team

March 19th, 2024

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Being named an Opening Day starter is special enough, but for Angels lefty , it means even more for him because it’s coming with his hometown team.

Sandoval, who grew up not too far from Angel Stadium in Mission Viejo, Calif., was named the club’s Opening Day starter on Tuesday prior to the Angels' 10-6 win over the Reds, as he’ll get the nod against the Orioles on March 28 in Baltimore. First pitch is scheduled for 12:05 p.m. PT. It’s the first time that the five-year veteran will start a regular-season opener.

“It’s a huge honor,” Sandoval said. “It’s something you dream of as a young kid to be an Opening Day starter. And I get to do it for my hometown team. It’s pretty cool.”

Angels manager Ron Washington said he always viewed Sandoval as the top candidate to start on Opening Day but wanted to see him seize the opportunity and display leadership. Sandoval struggled early in the spring but bounced back to throw 4 1/3 strong innings against the D-backs on Sunday and was informed on Monday he’d be the Opening Day starter.

“I think he's been the guy that the rest of that staff has looked toward to lead them for a few years here and he came into camp wanting to be that guy,” Washington said. “His progression each time he took the ball proved that he wanted to be that guy. And he earned it. So we gave it to him.”

Sandoval, 27, said he’s embracing his role as a leader for the club, as he’s now one of the longest-tenured players with the organization. He was originally acquired at the 2018 Trade Deadline in a deal with the Astros and made his debut in 2019. He’s one of just seven Angels who have been with the club since 2019, joining , , , , and .

He had trouble putting it together in his first two seasons in the Majors, going 1-9 with a 5.33 ERA in 19 appearances (15 starts) but bounced back to post a 3.62 ERA in 87 innings in 2021. His breakout season was in 2022, when he posted a 2.91 ERA in 27 starts, but he wasn’t as consistent in 2023 with a 4.11 ERA in 28 outings. Sandoval, though, still made the most sense to start the opener, although Canning was also under consideration.

“It’s awesome,” Sandoval said. “Being an Opening Day starter comes with a lot of responsibility and I'm ready for it. I’m ready to lead these guys to where we need to be. We’ve got a young staff and a lot of young guys coming up so it’ll be fun.”

Washington said Sandoval’s leadership skills are apparent but that he’s working to better channel his emotions. He’s had problems dealing with adversity while on the mound but has worked on his body language and staying more even-keel when things do go wrong.

“He's a very quiet guy but he's very intense inside,” Washington said. “And I'd like to see him take some of that inside intensity and show it on the outside and execute his pitches. And I think he will.”

Sandoval said he’ll also lean on his experience pitching for Team Mexico in last year’s World Baseball Classic to help him with the nerves that come with starting on Opening Day. Sandoval pitched in front of sold-out crowds much like what he’s expected to deal with at Camden Yards on March 28.

“It was definitely a way different atmosphere than I’m used to playing in,” Sandoval said. “It was cool to be able to experience it and kind of thrive in it. Just knowing I have that in me. Hopefully I can help get us to October and get that same feeling back.”

Sandoval will have his hands full against an Orioles club that many believe can contend for a World Series title. They traded for ace Corbin Burnes from the Brewers and he’ll start opposite Sandoval in the regular-season opener. Sandoval, though, said he views it as a good test to open the year. He has a career 3.86 ERA in three starts against the Orioles, including allowing one run over 6 1/3 innings in his lone career outing in Baltimore in 2022.

“That ballpark is awesome and it’s a great team,” Sandoval said. “They have a good lineup and a good pitching staff as well. Just a great overall team. They swing the bat well and they don't really chase much, so it's gonna be a challenge.”