"That's what you have to do, you have to keep your secret weapon in your back pocket," Skaggs said, a sly grin on his face after keying the Angels' 5-1 victory. "I don't think any of the teams knew I had one. I don't even think the Angels knew I had one, honestly."
The two-seamer felt good as Skaggs warmed up at Minute Maid Park's bullpen late Saturday afternoon, and the Astros were swinging at it early. So he threw it, and threw it, and threw it, until he looked up and saw that he had completed eight innings, given up only one unearned run and thrown only 95 pitches in a four-hit, one-walk, five-strikeout, uber-efficient gem.
"I think everything kind of clicked tonight," Skaggs said. "You couldn't ask for a better first outing."
There will be nights when the opposing lineup is more threatening, or the command is a little less crisp, or some growing pains emerge for Skaggs and his 22-year-old left arm. But there will also be nights when he dominates an opponent like he did in the second of a four-game series, because his four-seam fastball can now reach 95 mph, his curveball can be deadly and his two-seamer apparently exists.
"That kid's nasty, man," Albert Pujols said. "And that curveball. When he elevates it, they can hit it. But when he's bouncing it like he did today, it's tough."
The Angels got a second-inning RBI double from Howie Kendrick, a fifth-inning RBI single from David Freese and a two-run homer from Josh Hamilton immediately after. They then let Skaggs take care of the rest.
"He kept us off balance with his 95-mph [fastball] and his 75-mph curveball," Astros outfielder L.J. Hoes said. "He did a good job of keeping the ball low."
Coming off a hit-and-miss Spring Training that saw him post a 4.94 ERA in six starts, and an exhibition outing against the Dodgers in which he needed 97 pitches to throw 3 2/3 innings, Skaggs threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 29 hitters and stayed poised in tough situations, when a line drive off the glove of John McDonald and an ill-advised throw from Pujols extended innings.
"He was a lot different," Angels catcher Chris Iannetta said, comparing Skaggs against the Dodgers to Skaggs against the Astros. "He had really good command of the fastball and especially his sinker, the two-seamer. As the game progressed, he developed a really good feel for his curveball and his changeup. The changeup was the most inconsistent pitch in the spring, and that was pretty good for him tonight."
Skaggs' 2014 debut came on six days' rest, which allowed him to throw an additional bullpen session while ironing out some minor mechanical adjustments with pitching coach Mike Butcher.
"They were minor things," Skaggs said, "but they paid dividends."
Skaggs worked on being less violent with his leg kick, focused on following through so that his body was facing home plate when he finished pitches, and probably mixed in a two-seamer or two. Then he went out and trusted it.
"He really wasn't forcing too many things, was really pitching to contact," manager Mike Scioscia said. "Just an outstanding game."
Skaggs, you might remember, was a first-round pick by the Angels in 2009, one year before going to Arizona in the trade that was engineered by D-backs interim general manager Jerry Dipoto and brought Dan Haren to Southern California. And this past December, Dipoto acquired him again, along with Hector Santiago in the three-team deal that sent Mark Trumbo to the D-backs.
Skaggs has posted a 5.43 ERA in 13 Major League starts the last two years, and he struggled through a 4.59 ERA in 104 Triple-A innings this past season. But the Angels put their trust in him. They practically handed him the fifth spot of their rotation in Spring Training, as Skaggs lengthened his stride to re-gain the fastball velocity he once had, and they were rewarded off the bat.
"I was ready last year; it's just a great opportunity over here," Skaggs said. "It's one of those things where I'm going out every fifth day and I'm getting the ball. It's a relieving thing, knowing you're getting the ball every fifth day. You know the team has your back, the coaching staff has your back. It's exciting."