Duo proving Halos' success relies on more than stars

Utility man Navarro, righty Shoemaker occupying key roles after overcoming odds

Duo proving Halos' success relies on more than stars

ANAHEIM -- Efren Navarro's father is 68 years old now. His body is spent from three decades of replacing anchor spikes for the Union Pacific Railroad, worn from the leukemia that struck three years ago. And he needs a bone-marrow transplant, with no immediate donor in sight.

You'd never know it, though.

Not with the way Efren Sr. darts out of bed after exhaustive chemotherapy sessions, or the active lifestyle he still leads, or the way he smiles while watching his only son live out his only dream of playing for his hometown team. Efren Jr. still marvels at it all.

"Nothing fazes him," Navarro said of his dad. "I tell him, 'What motivates you? I want to have what you have.' He tells me, 'Son, it's just never giving up; always just putting one foot in front of the other.' I tell him I took a lot from him, just the fact of proving people wrong and working hard. He put that in me."

It takes a lot of that -- work, focus, pride and, in many ways, sheer stubbornness -- to beat the odds overcome by Navarro and the Angels teammate he shares a lot in common with, Matt Shoemaker.

Shoemaker went undrafted after his redshirt-junior year at Eastern Michigan University. But six years later, the 27-year-old has emerged as a rotation stalwart, winning 10 games and posting a 3.89 ERA for a team with the second-best record in the Majors.

Navarro was plucked out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the final round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, and he finally got his chance during his age-28 season in 2014, sporting a .268/.336/.392 slash line while becoming the primary designated hitter for the American League's second-highest-scoring offense.

On a team of stars, they've somehow found their way.

"They're not famous names, they're not first-round Draft picks, they're not sexy tool guys," Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said of Navarro and Shoemaker. "They just know how to play, and that's very important."

And it all comes back to something the Halos place a premium on -- controlling counts.

Navarro couldn't pass the Class A level in his first three years of professional baseball, was almost cut in his first stint of Double-A and spent three full seasons in Triple-A because he didn't possess the power of a prototypical first baseman. But the Angels have a stat called productive team plate appearances, which is any walk, hit by pitch, out advancing a lead runner, sac fly, sac bunt or eight-pitch at-bat. And almost every year, Navarro led the organization in that category.

Shoemaker barely tops 90 mph and gave up nearly 10 hits per nine innings in his Minor League career, a big reason why he didn't even play his first full season of Triple-A until age 25. But Shoemaker was frequently considered the Halos' prospect most likely to get ahead of hitters, stay ahead of hitters and put them away.

Shoemaker is, as Dipoto said, "the pitcher alternative of Efren."

Navarro got his scholarship to UNLV as a pitcher; Shoemaker got to Eastern Michigan as a pretty good corner infielder.

Navarro had surgery on his left elbow right before his junior year and missed the first three weeks of the season; Shoemaker broke his left arm right before his redshirt-junior year and missed the first week of the season.

Navarro thought the Angels would take him in the 28th round, but they balked at his off-the-cuff demand for "no less than $20,000" and didn't draft him until Round 50, eventually getting him for $15,000.

Shoemaker watched 1,453 players get selected instead of him during the 2007 Draft, and he was all set to cash in on his final year of college eligibility when Halos scout Joel Murrie offered him $10,000 to sign as an undrafted free agent.

"I can picture it like it was yesterday," Shoemaker's wife and longtime girlfriend, Danielle, said of Draft day. "He was just sitting there, on his laptop, watching the rounds go by. I was so sad for him."

Danielle, a paralegal in Michigan, admits there have been times when she wondered if this was all worth it, because the paychecks don't justify the grind when you toil in the Minor Leagues. But she always encouraged Shoemaker, because "I knew he wanted it so bad."

It would've been practical -- necessary, even -- for the couple to take a long, hard look at their situation and set a deadline for Shoemaker to either reach the Major Leagues or go another route.

"That's something we actually tried to discuss," Shoemaker said. "But knowing my love for the game and wanting to play it, we never could put a time on it. So what we really did was just take each year."

For Shoemaker, the defining moment came on July 26, when his family and friends traveled from Trenton, Mich., to Southern California to watch him beat his hometown Tigers, and Justin Verlander, with seven scoreless innings.

Danielle, of course, was in the stands.

"I just always knew he would be able to get here; it was just a matter of when," Danielle said. "Because he had so much talent, and he's so optimistic and he has so much perseverance."

For Navarro, it came last week at Dodger Stadium for the start of the annual Freeway Series, when his parents and sisters were given field passes to watch batting practice for the two teams they've always followed -- and for the game Navarro could only dream of playing in.

On Efren Navarro Sr.'s back that afternoon was the red Angels jersey from his son's Major League debut, fitting him as if it were his own.

"It's such a great honor to see him here," Efren Sr. said in Spanish. "He always talked about getting here, and here he is."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.