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Angels tab Heaney for first Opening Day start

@RhettBollinger
March 8, 2020

PHOENIX -- As the longest tenured member of the Angels’ rotation, left-hander Andrew Heaney will be rewarded with his first career Opening Day start, manager Joe Maddon announced on Sunday. The Angels open against the Astros at Minute Maid Park on March 26.

PHOENIX -- As the longest tenured member of the Angels’ rotation, left-hander Andrew Heaney will be rewarded with his first career Opening Day start, manager Joe Maddon announced on Sunday. The Angels open against the Astros at Minute Maid Park on March 26.

Heaney, 28, has been with the Angels since 2015, but he has never had the honor of starting the regular-season opener, as he hasn't been healthy to start a regular season since '16. Heaney only made one start that season before undergoing Tommy John surgery.

“I’ve worked really hard to put myself in that position and it's pretty cool,” Heaney said. “As a starting pitcher, your goal is to not only make the team, but to take the ball Opening Day."

Heaney was a candidate to be the club's Opening Day starter in 2019, but he opened the season on the injured list with left elbow irritation, and he didn't make his first start until May 26. Heaney made 18 starts in '19, posting a 4.91 ERA with 118 strikeouts, 30 walks and 20 homers allowed in 95 1/3 innings, while also missing time with left shoulder irritation. So for Heaney, it means a lot to be healthy this season.

“I haven't been able to get out of Spring Training healthy,” Heaney said. “In ’18, I almost put together a full season, 180 innings, but it wasn't a full season. So there's always something you're trying to improve yourself on, and do better in the offseason. And that's what gives you that drive and that motivation every year, is to try and improve and do better.”

Heaney also downplayed the fact that he will be the first pitcher to face the Astros after their sign-stealing scandal.

“I’m going to go out there and pitch, pitch to win the game,” Heaney said. “I don’t think intentionally putting guys on is the right way to go about winning a game. But I do pitch inside, and I'm not going to be afraid to do that.”

Maddon said he believed that fellow veterans Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy were also deserving candidates, as both have experience pitching on Opening Day. Teheran made six straight with the Braves, while Bundy did it in 2018 with the Orioles. But Maddon and pitching coach Mickey Callaway felt Heaney was more deserving because he’s been with the Angels longer.

“I talked to Bundy and to Teheran because they're all capable of being that guy,” Maddon said. “I wanted them to know I think that Andrew has earned the right by being an Angel as long as he has. And I thought it was the right thing to do this year. Plus, he's very capable.”

Heaney's strikeout percentage (28.9%) was tied for 20th-best among MLB starters last season, but he saw his walk rate and home run rate increase compared to 2018, when he had his best season, posting a 4.15 ERA in a career-high 30 starts with 180 strikeouts, 45 walks and 27 homers allowed in 180 innings. Heaney will have to lower his walk rate and limit homers to be effective this season, but he’s confident in his ability to lead the staff.

“I know how good I can be when I go out and pitch for a long stretch,” Heaney said. “To myself, I’ve proven that I know how good I can be whenever I have long stretches where I’m healthy and am able to take the ball every five or six days. I definitely have all the confidence in the world in myself.”

Maddon has enjoyed getting to know Heaney this spring and he believes Heaney can be a leader in the clubhouse this season, especially with the way he’s carried himself since last July’s sudden death of Tyler Skaggs, who was Heaney’s best friend. Heaney got a tattoo of a memorial bracelet in honor of Skaggs on his right wrist this offseason.

“He wants to be the guy that other guys look at,” Maddon said. “He wants that. His work ethic Is that good. His stuff is that good. And he's at that age right now where I think he's ready to blossom. And I told him exactly that. So it was a good conversation.”

Rhett Bollinger covers the Angels for MLB.com. He previously covered the Twins from 2011-18. Follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger and Facebook.