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BILL DWYRE

Angels' J.B. Shuck, once a castoff, is a solid member of the cast

An outfielder who was let go by the Houston Astros has batted solidly and played regularly for the Angels since Peter Bourjos' injury.

May 30, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • J.B. Shuck has become the Angels' starting left fielder since Peter Bourjos suffered an injury, and one of their best hitters, averaging .304 at the plate with 10 runs batted in this season after being cut by the Houston Astros in November.
J.B. Shuck has become the Angels' starting left fielder since Peter… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

At 7:10 p.m. Wednesday at Angel Stadium, they announced the Angels' starting outfield: They called out two of the biggest names in baseball and J.B. Shuck.

Shuck was starting his 24th of the last 28 games in left field, most often in the company of Mike Trout in center and Josh Hamilton in right. Shuck is like the guy who snuck backstage at the opera to get autographs and they let him sing. He is a household name only in his own household and in those households inhabited by rabid Angels fans.

"He has been a pleasant surprise," said Manager Mike Scioscia, which is like calling Dennis Rodman a little eccentric.

When they posted the starting lineups, only two Angels were batting above .300 — Howie Kendrick at .305 and Shuck at .304. The eight other guys in the lineup other than Shuck had a total salary similar to the gross national product of Sicily. Comparatively, Shuck makes pocket change. But ask who is the happiest camper in Angels camp right now, and it is probably Shuck.

An interview with Shuck revolved around two basic questions, the first a compound one: Who are you, where did you come from and why are you still here?

Shuck laughed.

The summarized answer is that he is 25, bats and throws left-handed and is a former star player at Ohio State who was drafted 182nd by the Houston Astros after his junior year. At Ohio State, he was both an outfielder and pitcher.

"We'd play four times a week," he said. "I'd be in the outfield Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and pitch on Sunday."

He hit .301 in five seasons in the minors, being used strictly as an outfielder.

"I didn't care which way I went," he said. "I just wanted to play."

He hit .271 in 37 games with the mother ship Astros in 2011, before being exiled to triple-A Oklahoma City for all of last season, where he hit .298, with 94 hits and 33 runs batted in.

Then, in November, he got the cockroach call from the Astros. A few years ago, many in America's workforce experienced that and can feel Shuck's pain. The Astros said (ready now, repeat after me): "They were going in a different direction."

Shuck, young and healthy, putting up good numbers, lightning fast, was off the 40-man roster, a minor league free agent.

"The Angels called immediately," he said. "It felt like they wanted me. That felt good. They told the truth right from the start. They were looking for a lefty-hitting utility outfielder, and they were giving me a shot."

Which prompts the second basic question: Why would anybody in his right mind sign on to compete for a job on a team with an outfield cast of (count along with me) Vernon Wells, Peter Bourjos, Mike Trout and, often, Mark Trumbo?

Shuck laughed again, and quickly pointed out that, only a few days after he signed, the Angels added Hamilton to the mix with a free-agent signing.

"I wasn't instantly depressed," Shuck said. "Really, I wasn't."

He said he was excited to be around that kind of depth of talent, which indicates he not only can hit, run and field, but also work the positive spin.

He came to spring training as one of the horde of nameless, faceless hopefuls. Not for long.

He hit .358 and Scioscia said, "He separated himself right away.

"He's not going to wow you with his arm or bat, but you see the heart and desire and then you are wowed."

Shuck got his chance to play regularly on the night of the game that would never end, the April 29 outing in Oakland that the Angels lost in 19 innings. New York City commuters caught the last few innings on their morning drive-time radio. Bourjos pulled a hamstring sprinting to first base.

Shuck's reaction?

"Oh, crap. We just lost our center fielder," he said.

The game went so long, Shuck got three at-bats that night and has been a full-time worker ever since.

In Wednesday's 4-3 victory over the Dodgers, Shuck was 0 for 4 and not needed, except to squeeze the last fly ball into his glove after Ernesto Frieri had given up two solo homers in the ninth.

Trumbo drove in three runs with a sacrifice fly and a two-run homer that was a couple of bounces shy of the 57 Freeway.

Friday night, the Astros come to town, and that has served as a reminder to Shuck's teammates of Houston's apparent mistake in "going in a different direction."

Bourjos said, "We can't believe they let him go."

Trumbo rolled his eyes in a gesture of: Can you believe they did that?

The Astros have shuffled their outfield more than a blackjack dealer. In their first 34 games, they played nine different outfielders. A likely trio here this weekend will be J.D. Martinez, Brandon Barnes and Jimmy Paredes.

That's decent, but it sure isn't J.B. Shuck and those other two guys.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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