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After three games, Joe Maddon’s experiment of putting Taylor Ward at the top of the Angels batting order seems to be working
Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon isn’t afraid to embrace the unconventional. This is a man who walked a batter with the bases loaded earlier this season. His lineup card more closely resembles Egyptian hieroglyphs, nearly indecipherable to the uninitiated. His mind works differently than other managers, a reason why he’s had so much success, from taking the perennial underdog Rays to the World Series to bringing a world title to Chicago’s North Side for the first time in a century.
Earlier this week, Maddon knew he needed to make a few changes to his lineup. The Angels had just dropped two straight games to the lowly Orioles and were sitting just a game above .500. His reigning MVP, Shohei Ohtani, had gotten off to a slow start while batting leadoff. Mike Trout, the best player on the planet, needed help in front of him.
Maddon found his solution in the form of a former first-round pick who, after years of unfulfilled potential, is finally finding his place in the big leagues. He moved Taylor Ward to the leadoff spot, dropping Ohtani to second and Trout to third. The results after three games have been outstanding.
Ward, who had appeared in just 159 games over the previous four seasons since the Angels drafted him 26th overall out of Fresno State in 2015, hit his second career grand slam on Wednesday in the Angels’ 9-5 win over the Cleveland Guardians. Ward finished the game 3-4 with four RBI and four runs scored, coming only a single away from hitting for the cycle.
His move into the leadoff spot is paying immediate dividends for the Angels and those following him in the lineup. Ward is 6-12 in the last three games with three home runs, including his first career multi-homer game on Monday, and seven RBI. He had just one home run and two RBI in eight games earlier in the season batting lower in the order. Even Ohtani, who was batting just .213 before Wednesday, collected three hits (while also pitching five innings), his first three-hit game since last June. Trout lined two doubles as the Angels combined for 14 hits against the Guardians.
Ward already had a first-inning double when he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the second inning on Wednesday. Guardians starter Zach Plesac got two quick strikes on Ward before throwing him a slider that hung up high in the zone. It was a mistake pitch that Ward, as hot as can be, wouldn’t miss. He sent it 400 feet into the first row of the center-field bleachers, blowing open what had been a 2-2 tie game. Ward became the first Angels leadoff hitter with a grand slam since David Eckstein had three 20 years ago.
The emergence of Taylor Ward is no surprise to Joe Maddon
Maddon began noticing a change in Ward’s approach at the end of last season. His swing had gotten too steep, so Ward worked to make it flatter and get more solid contact. “You know he’s going to look over the pitch. You know he’s not going to expand the strike zone very often. We knew there was power there, but as he was making these swing adjustments the ball wasn’t in the air as well as it is right now,” Maddon said on Wednesday.
“So he just stayed with it, and when you watch his work and talk to him conversationally, he’s really good. So it’s not surprising to us, quite frankly.”
The Angels have won all three games since Ward was moved into the leadoff spot. At 12-7, they sit alone in first place in the AL West. The Angels haven’t been in first place at this point in the season since 2018 and had spent a total of three days alone at the top of the division the last three seasons.
The trio of Ward, Ohtani, and Trout went a combined 8-12 with six runs scored on Wednesday. Ward and Trout occupy the first two spots on the AL OPS leaderboard at 1.346 and 1.284, respectively. Ohtani, after his slow start, is starting to heat up and is batting .353 over his last four games.
Maddon’s shuffling of the lineup worked. For a franchise with two superstars that has missed the postseason in seven consecutive seasons, it was just what they needed. Maddon, once again, looks like a genius.