Vargas leads Angels to shutout, series victory
Starter exhibits vintage form, allowing two hits over seven innings
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jason Vargas had already exceeded 100 pitches through six innings on Thursday afternoon, but he was throwing some of his best baseball in quite some time and wasn't ready to stop.
"He definitely talked us into going out for the seventh, because he was borderline," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He was pitching well, but he was at  pitches. You're always worried about his stamina. He was adamant. He said, 'I feel great.'"
Vargas didn't need to say anything, though. With seven shutout innings, while leading the Angels to a 2-0 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field, he put it on display. Vargas gave up only two hits, walked three, struck out seven batters and breezed through the seventh in his fourth start since missing nearly two months on the disabled list, moving to 8-5 with a 3.54 ERA in 18 starts.
The 30-year-old left-hander was on a pretty good run before a blood clot was discovered near his left arm-pit area, with a 3.06 ERA and seven quality starts in nine outings leading up to June 17. And now, with each start since coming back, he seemingly gets better and better, closer to reverting back to the pitcher the Angels figured they were getting when they traded Kendrys Morales to the Mariners.
Over his last two starts, Vargas has given up one run in 13 1/3 innings.
"That's what we kind of expected," Scioscia said. "He was trying to get his feet on the ground the first start. Gradually you've seen him work into his stuff. Today was just a terrific game."
Vargas' 114-pitch gem -- coupled by RBI singles from Luis Jimenez and Kole Calhoun, and a ninth-inning save that saw Ernesto Frieri escape a second-and-third, one-out jam -- helped the Angels move to 5-1 on this nine-game road trip, which concludes with a weekend series in Milwaukee. They swept a three-game series at Safeco Field and took two of three at The Trop, giving them back-to-back series wins for the first time since July 2-7.
"Year's not over, you know," Vargas said, his team still just 60-72. "Keep winning like this, we'll take it."
Vargas frequently mentioned that first-inning jam as a big key for his first scoreless start since May 19.
The Rays (75-57) loaded the bases with one out, but Vargas pitched out of it to trigger a run in which he retired 14 of 15 batters heading into the sixth. Ben Zobrist began the sixth at second after a single and throwing error by Jimenez at third base. But Vargas struck out Sean Rodriguez and got a lazy flyout from Yunel Escobar to end the inning, talked Scioscia into letting him come back out for the seventh, then quickly mowed down the bottom of the order for a 1-2-3 inning.
"He really settled in and pitched great," Rays skipper Joe Maddon said after his Rays were shut out for the first time since Aug. 10. "He had us chasing all day."
Vargas' most effective pitch was the changeup. He threw 40 of them, per pitchF/X, which is a little more than usual. And in the sixth, when he needed big outs, it was there. He used it to strike out Evan Longoria after setting him up with four straight fastballs with a runner on second. He threw two of them in the strikeout of Rodriguez, which followed a walk to Wil Myers. And he threw a 1-2 changeup to get Escobar to fly out and end one of few jams the Rays put up against him.
"We threw it a lot for most of the game," catcher Hank Conger said. "Even for him to throw it back to back and triple up on it, he really had a good feel for it and kept it down in the zone. That was really his go-to pitch today."
These next five or six starts could be Vargas' last in an Angels uniform. He's a free agent at season's end, and though the Angels would no doubt love to bring him back at the right price, this offseason will be impossible to predict.
The more Vargas pitches like this, the more expensive he'll become.
"I felt pretty good last time, too," Vargas said, referencing 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball in Seattle on Saturday. "Other than being able to get out of that first, I felt like I was just executing pitches today. I wasn't really thinking about getting better each time out. Every time is going to be different. Next time could be worse, you never know."