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Angels sorely missed Zach Neto’s ‘spark plug’ vibe in frustrating loss to Pirates

Los Angeles Angels'  Zach Neto (9) celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run during the fifth inning.

Zach Neto celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run in a win over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday. Neto sat out against the Pirates on Saturday in the Angels’ 3-0 loss. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

A lot of people, Zach Neto says, call him a “spark plug.” In the dugout. In the locker room. It is his personality, he feels, embedded in his blood, the precocious rookie shortstop leg-kicking and plunk-absorbing his way into Angels’ fans hearts.

But when presented with the moniker at the postgame dais Saturday night, Angels manager Phil Nevin furrowed his brow, halting the line of questioning.

“Zach? Did he describe himself? All right, well,” Nevin said to laughs, “I’ll let him know that we’ll be the ones that’ll let him know the nicknames we’ll give him.

“I think there’s something to that, sure… there’s a lot of energy,” Nevin said after being told of Neto’s nickname. “Very instinctual player. And, yeah, we’re better with Zach Neto on the field.”

Read more: Hernández: Shohei Ohtani says he wants to go to the playoffs with the Angels. Don’t betray him

Neto didn’t play in the Angels’ 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday. A late scratch because of back tightness, Neto couldn’t help an Angels squad that hit into momentum-killing double plays in the fourth and ninth innings. After the game, Nevin talked about the impact Neto has made at the top of the lineup.

“We’re a different look without Zach in there — it’s just the way it is,” Nevin said, in response to a question about Andrew Velazquez starting in his place. “And [Velazquez] does a heck of a job defensively, but it’s just a different energy, a different vibe, with [Neto] leading off the inning.

“The guys feed off that. And it’s very rare to see that in a 22-year-old kid.”

So, would Nevin describe Neto as a “spark plug”?

He chuckled.

“I mean, he’s a lot of things to our team,” Nevin said. “We got a lot of guys that create sparks for our team. But, I mean — sure.”

Thus, the legend of “spark plug” Zach Neto grows even in the midst of the Angels’ desperate claw for a foothold in the standings ahead of a pivotal series with the third wild-card-spot-holding Toronto Blue Jays. The Angels need every bat they can get, but Mike Trout appears about a month away from a return from a hamate bone injury and Anthony Rendon’s recovery from a shin bone bruise will be further delayed. Nevin told reporters that an MRI scan revealed Rendon is dealing with “really significant bleeding inside the bone.”

The Angels also need Neto to return. They are 36-26 in games the 2022 first-round pick has played in since being promoted from double A in April. In games he hasn’t played, the Angels are 14-23.

Neto’s numbers are good, but not overwhelming. He’s hitting .252 with eight homers and a .760 OPS. But Nevin, the purist manager who called himself “not a big hat-backwards guy” when asked about center fielder Mickey Moniak’s clubhouse cap-wearing habits, cited the importance of the “vibe” Neto brings.

“Those things don’t go unnoticed,” Nevin said in reference to the Angels’ record with Neto vs. without. “I would have probably guessed about that, too.”

And some sort of spark would’ve helped Saturday, as the goodwill of a four-game win streak was washed away, leaving the Angels four games back of the third wild-card spot and in a precarious position before the August trade deadline. Starter Reid Detmers was cruising through four innings before running into trouble in the fifth, when a check-swing call on Pittsburgh’s Carlos Santana was ruled ball two instead of strike two before Santana delivered an RBI double on the next pitch to extend the Pirates’ lead to 2-0.

Angels starting pitcher Reid Detmers delivers during the second inning of a 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Angels starting pitcher Reid Detmers delivers during the second inning of a 3-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates at Angel Stadium on Saturday. (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

In the dugout after the fifth inning, Detmers threw a hand up in frustration, which he said was directed towards first base umpire Sean Barber.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Detmers said. “You can clearly see it from the dugout, on the mound, wherever you are. It’s tough. We gotta win these games.”

As much as the Angels preach the lack of pressure — or in Shohei Ohtani slamming his helmet into the bench after a strikeout Saturday and getting popped in his face by the ricochet — late-July emotions are clearly rising.

“We all care,” Nevin said. “I don’t have any problem with that at all. I mean, I want them to care. I want them to continue to show emotion, let things out.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.