ANAHEIM -- After a year with no fans in the stands in 2020, there was a sense of normalcy Thursday at Angel Stadium on Opening Day, exactly 550 days since the last time fans were allowed at The Big A.
And, of course, it all started with the first appearance of the season by the Rally Monkey in the eighth inning that had the 13,207 fans in attendance ready for a comeback with the Angels down a run to the White Sox. The WandaVision-themed appearance from the Rally Monkey proved immediately effective with David Fletcher reaching on an infield single and Shohei Ohtani getting on board after an error by second baseman Nick Madrigal.
It set the stage for superstar Mike Trout, who had fans chanting, “MVP, MVP” during his at-bat, and he came through with yet another clutch hit, this time an RBI single to left to tie the game. And after an 11-pitch walk by Justin Upton, Albert Pujols provided the go-ahead RBI with a groundout to third in the 21st and perhaps final Opening Day start of his career. It helped the Angels to a 4-3 win over the White Sox, which snapped a streak of seven straight losses on Opening Day for the Halos.
“On cue with the Rally Monkey, right?” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “We were talking about it in the dugout, 13,000 fans felt like 40, 50 or 60 [thousand]. It was really loud. The vibe is way more normal. We’ll get those types of performances just from the fan input alone. Fans are a difference-maker and they were again tonight."
The Angels appeared to be headed toward another tough-luck loss in their opener, but proved they have the kind of offense that can create late rallies. Their comeback came against one of the best bullpens in baseball and off lefty Aaron Bummer, who entered with a combined 1.99 ERA over his last two seasons.
Upton’s night at the plate also sparked optimism about how deep this lineup can be, as he gave the Angels their first hit and their first run with a two-out RBI single in the fourth off White Sox ace Lucas Giolito.
Upton also nearly came through with a big hit in the sixth with two on and one out, but he smacked a grounder 108.7 mph off the bat right to third baseman Yoán Moncada, who started an inning-ending double play. But it was his walk in the eighth that passed the baton to Pujols that was his best plate appearance of the night. Upton withstood a flurry of fastballs and sliders from Bummer, fouling off five straight pitches at one point, before drawing the crucial walk to load the bases for Pujols.
"It was nice having the fans back in the stands,” Upton said. “There was a lot of energy. It allows you to focus-in on the at-bat. Bummer has some great stuff, but I was able to fight off some tough pitches and draw that walk.”
The heart of the lineup showed its teeth as well, with Trout, Rendon and Upton combining to reach base seven times, showing their patience with four walks.
Maddon was also happy to see the Angels put the ball in play in the eighth inning to force the issue, which led to Fletcher and Ohtani reaching despite not hitting the ball out of the infield. It all fits in with Maddon’s mantra that he wants his club to play 1985-style baseball.
"The fact that we were able to move the baseball when we needed to, that's what stands out,” Maddon said. “That's what we are looking for. The strikeout is not a good thing. We want to move the baseball and we did that tonight."
The offense, though, isn't expected to be the issue this year, so it was encouraging to see Dylan Bundy record a quality start with three runs allowed over six innings. The bullpen followed Bundy with three scoreless frames, which included a 1-2-3 ninth from new closer Raisel Iglesias.
The defense was also crisp with strong plays defensively by Trout, Rendon and shortstop José Iglesias.
Add it all up, and it’s a recipe for success and one that has Maddon feeling optimistic about this season.
“Overall, just a brilliant performance,” Maddon said. “I mean, for an Opening Night, that's as good as it's going to get with your team. If we keep playing that type of baseball, we are going to win a lot of games.”