March 2009

Shields reflects on Classic

 

The Angels are back at full strength. Scot Shields has returned to his familiar spot in the bullpen, having returned from the World Baseball Classic to enrich teammates with inside stories about the event.

“The experience was great,” Shields said. “I just wish we could have played one more game.”

Team USA was ousted in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium on Sunday by Japan, which went on to successfully defend its title from the 2006 inaugural event with a thrilling victory over Korea on Monday night.

“Japan’s got a pretty good team,” Shields said, agreeing that its aggressive, old-school style is similar to that of the Angels. “They’ve got good hitters all through their lineup, and three starting pitchers who are excellent. They’ve got speed, they get guys over, they play defense.

“I’m disappointed in how it ended, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Getting to know a whole new team, just about was great. The only guys back from the first one were Chipper [Jones] before he had to leave, [Derek] Jeter and Jake [Peavy].”

The highlight was the dramatic, come-from-behind, 6-5 triumph over Puerto Rico in the second round in Miami that clinched a semifinal berth for Team USA.

“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in,” said Shields, who produced four outs of perfect relief to keep Puerto Rico at bay. “The guys had been together for like a week and a half and were celebrating like we knew each other all year.

“That showed how important it was for us to win.”

Shields has heard and read the criticism of Team USA, that it didn’t care as much about the event as other countries, notably the two finalists.

“We all take pride in having those letters across our chest,” he said. “We really wanted to win. Japan just beat us, that’s all.”

Shields appeared in five of the team’s eight games, yielding two earned runs on seven hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings, striking out two men.

“I got my work in,” Shields said. “I’m feeling good. I’m ready to go.”

Escobar impressive again

Kelvim Escobar, throwing to Minor League hitters wearing a different uniform for the first time on Monday afternoon in a simulated game, gave the Angels even more cause for optimism.

The big right-hander from Venezuela unleashed fastballs consistently in the 90s, including one that hit 96, while delivering 34 pitches to Cubs batters.

“I can feel the way the ball was coming out of my hand,” Escobar said in the afterglow. “I didn’t feel I was going to throw 96. Maybe 94.

“I’m very happy — even happier with the way I felt. I’ve surprised myself. I’ve tested my arm many times, and it’s feeling good. Now I’m going to stop worrying if it’s going to hurt or pinch and focus on my mechanics.”

The early projection for Escobar’s return to a spot on the Angels’ pitching staff was mid-season, but he has bumped that up by months. His recovery from July 29 shoulder surgery to repair a labrum tear has been stunning.

Before going to the mound to face the Cubbies, Escobar had a long-toss session in the outfield and threw hard in the bullpen. He said pitching coach Mike Butcher told him he unloaded 38 pitches in the bullpen, and he was letting go.
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That would have brought him to 72 for the day, and he was still bringing it at the finish.

“Even in the bullpen I had good velocity,” Escobar said. “I was feeling great. Throwing the way I did, that many pitches [in the bullpen and simulated game] is a good sign.”
 
The stands behind the backstop on one of the Minor League diamonds beyond Tempe Diablo Stadium were packed with red uniforms attached to young Angels, Minor Leaguer dreamers intently watching a Major League star.

“Seeing all the guys got me excited,” Escobar said. “The whole Minor League complex was watching me.”

Escobar used his entire repertoire – four-seam and two-seam fastballs, split-fingered fastballs, breaking balls, changeups.

Rough fifth for Lackey

The wind is blowing out for the Royals, too. With blasts by Alberto Callaspo and Mike Jacobs in the fifth inning, K.C. caught the Angels, four bombs apiece, and John Lackey departed with a 10-7 lead after facing six men in the fifth without getting an out. David Herndon quieted the Royals.

Lackey’s line — seven earned runs on 10 hits in four innings — will bloat his ERA, but that’s why numbers in the spring sometimes don’t mean much. He had good life on his fastball and got his work in, as they say. Big day for Lackey’s batterymate, Jeff Mathis: homer, two singles, a walk, three runs scored. His buddy, Mike Napoli, also will have something to talk about. His smash to right center would have left the yard with the wind blowing in. He crushed it.

 

Bombs away!

The Angels brought their hitting shoes to Surprise, obviously. They got here for early batting practice, and it clearly is paying off. They produced nine runs on 10 hits in two innings against southpaw Horacio Ramirez, with Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli going back-to-back with bombs to right center following a Robb Quinlan homer in the first inning. (Quinlan looks sensational, by the way). Jeff Mathis joined the homer party in the third inning with a near replica of Quinlan’s bullet to left center.

Scorching Matt Brown already tripled in a run and singled, joining Rivera with two hits. Rivera also singled home two runs in the first inning. Juan seems to have found his groove. On Saturday, in Tempe, he launched a ball so high and so far, the third-base umpire (Jim Joyce) was left to guess whether it cleared the foul pole in fair or foul territory. It was so far above and beyond the pole, there was no way to tell. From where he sat, Mike Scioscia obviously thought it was fair, prompting him to do a full-tilt sprint to Joyce to voice his disapproval.

Scioscia, I can report from personal experience, still can throw hard. He asked me to warm him up before throwing BP, and he zinged a few. I bounced a few throws back to him, to make sure he could still get down and dig ‘em out as in the days of old. The last time I did this probably was right about the time he was breaking in as a young catcher with the Dodgers in Dodgertown. I’ll see how my arm feels in the morning, but I’ll be icing the shoulder after the game just in case.

John Lackey yielded a solo homer to Ryan Shealy but got out of a jam in the third when he struck out Jose Guillen to leave two runners stranded. Apparently, a handful of Angels fans in the crowd haven’t forgiven Guillen for his indiscretions in his final days with Team Scioscia, serenading him with boos and catcalls in his plate appearances.   

Kendrick could flourish as No. 2 hitter

Howard. That’s what his wife, Jody, and his family members call the Angels’ second baseman, known in the baseball world as Howie Kendrick. I tried calling him Howard in print for a time last season — he told me it didn’t matter one way or another to him — but it seemed to confuse readers, so I went back to Howie.

He told me this morning that he became Howie after a baseball card company asked if it could call him Howie rather than Howard. It picked up momentum when he was in the minor leagues, and he’s been Howie ever since — even though those close to him call him Howard.

So … on to the news of the day. When the season opens and he’s announced as Howie Kendrick at Angel Stadium, he could be in the No. 2 spot in the order, between Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu. It was manager Mike Scioscia’s initial plan to bat the highly selective Abreu second, followed by Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter. But Kendrick’s strong spring and growth as a hitter seems to be moving Scioscia toward a new look.

I love the idea of Kendrick batting second, the more I think about it. For one thing, it will give him as many as 70 to 80 more at-bats than he would get hitting down in the order, and this guy could be a batting champion very soon. He drives the ball to all fields and doesn’t strike out a lot, and he’s an exceptional baserunner. Figgins likes the idea of Howie hitting behind him, and Abreu has batted third most of his career. So it makes sense on a number of levels.

Scioscia made an interesting point about why Kendrick doesn’t walk more. He squares up balls and puts them in play at a high rate. But he is learning how to work counts, and he’s totally into the game. Reggie Willits, one of the smartest guys I’ve been around, hit in front of Kendrick in the minors and thinks Howard has everything you’re looking for in a No. 2 hitter.

We’ll see where it goes from here. Scioscia has been known to experiment with lineups. Maicer Izturis also is highly capable of being a solid No. 2 hitter, and Erick Aybar also has made strides in his selectivity. But Kendrick is a special hitter — a “freak of nature,” Willits calls him, with utmost respect. , ,  

Moseley sharp again

Dustin Moseley continued his impressive march toward a spot in the Angels’ rotation with his most effective effort yet of the spring.

Stretching it out to five innings, Moseley held the White Sox scoreless on four hits and a walk, striking out four men. Three of the four were caught looking, indicating Moseley had his two-seam fastball getting excellent late movement. He was effective down in the zone, creating seven outs on the ground.

Moseley’s biggest predicament came in the third following back-to-back singles with two outs, but dangerous Jim Thome grounded out to Howie Kendrick on a fine play at second base.

Moseley has yielded four earned runs across 14 Cactus League innings, but two of those were gifts on a windblown pop fly in the sun that Erick Aybar couldn’t find.

Matthews making his point

It was a serious and determined Gary Matthews Jr. who arrived early in camp this spring. After undergoing knee surgery on Oct. 28, he’d worked diligently to regain leg strength and expressed confidence that he’d be ready to play sooner than the club imagined.

He wasn’t kidding around.

In right field on Wednesday against the White Sox after playing center on Tuesday against the Padres, Matthews unloaded against Gavin Floyd in the fourth, an inning after Chone Figgins had launched a two-run bomb.

Matthews’ solo blast, his first of the spring, carried at least 420 feet, way beyond the 380 marker in right center. On Tuesday, manager Mike Scioscia expressed amazement over how well Matthews was running — “as well as ever,” the skipper said. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with Matthews’ power either.

The early projection was for Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu to share left field and the designated hitter role, but Matthews, if he keeps this up, might force some serious reevaluations by Scioscia and his staff.

 

Figgins stays hot

It might be off the radar somewhat, but Chone Figgins’ brilliant spring continues. The third baseman crushed his first homer of the spring on Wednesday, gving the Angels a 2-0 lead in the third inning behind Dustin Moseley.

DH Mike Napoli, who’d walked, stolen second — the big dude can motor — and moved to third on a wild pitch, scored ahead of Figgins.

Figgins is currently batting .375 in11 games. He has stolen five bases in six attempts and has been superb with the glove. His amazingly quick feet and reactions enabled him to take a hit away from White Sox catcher Donny Lucy with a diving stab on a ball headed to left field, giving Moseley the third out of a perfect second inning.

Reporting to camp, Figgins said his goal was to play all 162 games after freak injuries to his hand and hamstring cost him chunks of the past two seasons. He’s trying to recapture his reputation as a durable, consistent force in the leadoff spot, and he’s off and running.

Saunders hacks away

Even though Angels skipper Mike Scioscia has left a distinct impression that he doesn’t want his pitchers swinging the bat this spring in National League parks, Joe Saunders apparently couldn’t resist.

Following a triple to the left-center gap by fleet Peter Bourjos with two outs in the second inning Saturday, Saunders went the other way on an Aaron Heilman delivery and slapped it into left field for an RBI single.

Saunders, an exceptional golfer from the right side, swings the bat left-handed, as he does everything else. Joe got more exercise than he bargained for when Chone Figgins followed with his second double of the day, to the same left-center gap Bourjos hit. Third-base coach Dino Ebel wisely held Saunders at third, and he stayed there when Reggie Willits fouled out to left.

Figgins also had a hand in a textbook relay in the second inning, cutting down Milton Bradley at third. Terry Evans ran down Bradley’s drive into the right-field corner and hit cutoff man Sean Rodriguez, who threw a one-hop bullet from shallow right that Figgins snagged on one hop, applying the tag on Bradley.

Rodriguez demonstrated his exceptional range later in the inning when he went behind second to backhand a grounder by Esteban German and nail him at first with an off-balance throw.

In his second at-bat leading off the fourth inning, Saunders was clearly back with the program. He didn’t take a swing, looking at a third strike. 

 

Abreu update

Bobby Abreu, playing right field and batting third, walked and struck out twice in Venezuela’s 3-1 decision over the Netherlands on Saturday in Miami in the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

Abreu, through five Classic games, is batting .313 with a .389 on-base percentage and .563 slugging percentage. He has a homer and three RBIs. Abreu was hitting .333 in four Cactus League games with the Angels before joining Team Venezuela.

“We should get him back for at least seven or eight [preseason] games,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of Abreu, who is expected to share left field and the DH job with Juan Rivera. “That should be enough time to integrate him into the offense.”

Former Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez registered a four-out save for Venezuela against the Netherlands, yielding one hit while striking out a pair of hitters. K-Rod hasn’t given up a run in three Classic appearances. 

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