There is no love lost between Ryan Tepera and his hometown team. The Angels reliever grew up in Clute, Texas, an hour south of Houston, but he’s not expecting a warm welcome when the Angels open a three-game series against the Astros at Minute Maid Park on Monday night.
“There’s been a thing with the Astros in the past,” Tepera said, “so yeah, there’s a little bit of bad blood there.”
Tepera, while pitching for the Chicago White Sox, irked the Astros and their fans in October by implying that Houston might have been stealing signs — again — during the American League Division Series.
The Astros won Games 1 and 2 at home by a combined score of 15-5. When White Sox pitchers struck out 16 in a Game 3 win in Chicago, Tepera, who whiffed three in two scoreless innings that day, suggested there was a reason Houston hitters weren’t as effective on the road.
“They’ve obviously had a reputation of doing some sketchy stuff over there,” Tepera said after Game 3. “It’s just … we can say that it’s a little bit of a difference. I think you saw the swings and misses [in Game 3] compared to the first two games at Minute Maid.”
Said Houston manager Dusty Baker at the time: “Those are heavy accusations.”
A Major League Baseball investigation concluded in January 2020 that the Astros stole signs electronically during their 2017 run to the World Series title, resulting in the firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch, a $5-million fine and a loss of draft picks.
Tepera, who signed a two-year, $14-million deal with the Angels in March, believes Houston fans were more offended by his controversial comments than the players. But the right-hander acknowledged his move to the Angels, who play the Astros 19 times this season, could spice up an already heated AL West rivalry.
“I don’t think it’s that personal,” Tepera, 34, said. “I mean, I actually know quite a few of those guys over there. I’ve worked out with some of them in the offseason. So, you know, it’s competing, man. We’re on the battlefield, and it’s competition. They get you one night, I get them one night — that’s just how it works.”
That’s exactly how it worked in the season-opening four-game series between the teams in Anaheim.
Two of Tepera’s first four pitches in his Angels debut were hit for solo homers by Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez, turning a one-run eighth-inning deficit into a three-run hole in an eventual 3-1 Angels loss in the opener April 7.
Two nights later, Tepera replaced Aaron Loup with a runner on first base, one out in the seventh and the Angels ahead by one run. He needed only 18 pitches to retire five consecutive batters — two by strikeout — in a 2-0 Angels win.
“It was kind of a kick in the teeth that first night, but I think I was a little out of whack,” Tepera said. “It’s still early and the season is fresh, but it’s always good to get a little revenge.”
Tepera was dominant in his next outing, striking out the side on 14 pitches, each whiff coming on his nasty slider, in last Monday night’s 6-2 win over Miami, and he threw 1 1/3 hitless innings in Friday night’s 9-6 victory at Texas.
The slider emerged as a potent weapon for Tepera in 2021, when he went 0-2 with a 2.79 ERA and two saves in 65 games for the Chicago Cubs and White Sox, striking out 74, walking 19 and giving up only 35 hits in 61 1/3 innings.
Tepera threw his slider 5% of the time in 2020. He increased his use of the pitch to 45% of the time in 2021 and ended 53 of his strikeouts with it. Opponents batted .132 (14 for 106) with a .264 slugging percentage in at-bats ending with it.
The slider, which averages 85.2 mph, is more sinker than sweeper, with 33 inches of vertical drop and 5.1 inches of horizontal break, and it pairs well with his 91.3-mph four-seam fastball.
“Early in my career, I threw a true cut-fastball, and over the years it morphed into a power slider,” Tepera said. “It has a little more depth, and it’s not quite as hard — it’s about 2 mph slower than when I first came up to the big leagues.
“It’s the same pitch. It’s just something I can manipulate now. I have such a better feel for it. I can expand with it, take some mph off it, throw it a little harder. … It’s at its best when I throw it hard and let it work like this.”
Tepera and the left-handed Loup are the primary setup men for closer Raisel Iglesias and key parts of a rebuilt bullpen the Angels are counting on to help them end a seven-season playoff drought and contend for the division title.
One team standing in their way, one that has won four of the last five AL West titles and played in three of the last five World Series, happens to be Tepera’s nemesis.
“Bring it on,” Tepera said of the Astros rivalry. “I mean, that’s all I can do.”