April 2009

Napoli, Wood could be answers

Vladimir Guerrero is gone for a long spell with his torn pectoral muscle. It might be mid-June before we see him swing a bat again with meaning. Something needs to be done to generate more power, more force, in the Angels’ lineup. But it doesn’t necessarily require a deal.

The Angels need to at least try to make better use of two potentially lethal weapons already at their disposal: Mike Napoli and Brandon Wood.

With Guerrero out, this would be an ideal time to see what Napoli can do as a designated hitter. My feeling is that he’s a natural-born slugger who would emerge as a consistent power source once he’s liberated from the taxing physical demands of catching. That job beats a guy up, drains him. There have been few players like Johnny Bench, who played in an era when games were much shorter and strike zones were larger, meaning fewer pitches to call and absorb.

Jeff Mathis is a superior receiver, as athletic as any catcher I’ve seen. Playing regularly, he’ll hit in the .250 range with some power. Napoli as DH is an idea whose time has come. With his long swing — we’ve seen what he can do when he’s locked in — he could be 35-homer, 110-RBI guy.

Which brings us to Wood. We’ll never know what Brandon can do until he gets a shot at some consistent playing time. His power is as real as Napoli’s. Brandon made big strides this spring in selectivity and discipline. He looks ready to become a solid player, perhaps a big-time run producer. And there is nothing at all wrong with Wood’s defense, at shortstop or at third base. There must be a way to work Wood into the rotation on the left side of the infield.

As this is written, we’re 15 games and six innings into the season. The Angels have 12 home runs — six by Torii Hunter, three by Napoli, three by everybody else.

Wood had four home runs and eight RBIs in seven games at Triple-A Salt Lake, batting .346. Bobby Wilson, who would be summoned as the backup catcher, is hitting .300 and slugging .733 with three homers and six RBIs in eight games.

The Angels are carrying 12 pitchers. Eleven should be enough. If you’re using your 12th guy, it’s pretty much a lost cause anyway. 

  

Club holds private memorial service for Adenhart

The Angels assembled on Thursday at 11 a.m. near home plate at Angel Stadium for a private organization-wide memorial tribute to Nick Adenhart. The 22-year-old pitcher was killed on April 9 in Fullerton, Calif., along with companions Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson when their car was struck by hit-and-run motorist Andrew Thomas Gallo, who was charged with three counts of murder along with other felony counts, including driving with a blood-alcohol level above the legal limit.

“It was a very good service, something I’m personally glad we were able to do,” Angels catcher Jeff Mathis said. “This was private, just for us, the players, coaches, front office . . . everybody. It was important for the guys who didn’t get to go to the [funeral] service for Nick in Maryland. Some people got up and spoke. It was very meaningful for us.”

With games scheduled in Seattle, only a handful of players were able to attend the services for Adenhart in his native Maryland along with manager Mike Scioscia and front-office personnel.

 

 

 

 

How good would he have been?

In Seattle now with the Angels, feeling their pain and unimaginable sense of desolation over the loss of Nick Adenhart, I am trying to carry on, but I still am numb, disoriented, not entirely here. My coping abilities clearly have limits.

It’s been six days. Six decades won’t be long enough to get over this.

This is essentially what Shane Loux was saying yesterday after a remarkable performance against the Mariners on a frigid day at Safeco Field in front of a packed house that had come to welcome Ken Griffey Jr. back to his original baseball home. We use the word courage much too often in sports, but I feel it’s a courageous effort for the Angels to just take the field at this time, let alone play the game at a high level.

Loux expressed a sentiment shared, I’m sure, by every Angels player, coach, manager Mike Scioscia and the entire organizational staff when he said Nick was in his thoughts all day long – and hasn’t left his thoughts since the horrible news came on Thursday morning.

The reader response to my post on Nick was heartwarming, but it also served to drive home the enormity of this loss. He was just getting started. I can’t seem to get past that right now, how it was all in front of him.

Friends have called, expressing various reactions, and one question I’m asked over and over is this: How good would Nick Adenhart have been if his career had played itself out?

My response generally goes something like this: “He’d have been great. How great, obviously, we’ll never know.” And that’s just tragic beyond words. He should have been allowed to fulfill his destiny.

When I first started watching Nick seriously, in 2008 in Arizona during Spring Training, I saw a remarkable resemblance in manner to Bobby Welch in his early days with the Dodgers. I recall writing something about that and then discussing it with Nick. I was drawn to his easy, laid-back manner, how he was so interested in everything I had to say about the game he loved. A lot of young people are preoccupied, quite naturally, with their own lives, but I sensed that Nick really enjoyed hearing about players from earlier times, what made them tick.

I also told him all about Don Sutton, another pitcher I covered who made it to the Hall of Fame with tools very similar to those of Nick Adenhart. Sutton wasn’t overpowering, but he could put his fastball where he wanted it and had a big, over-the-top curveball that complemented it beautifully. Sutton was a serious student of the game as a young man, absorbing everything he could, and that went a long way in making him the durable craftsman he became across two decades.

Sutton, I decided, was the type of pitcher Adenhart could become. Nick also had a dynamic changeup to go with the 92-94 mph heater and the 12-to-6 curve, and he had the burning desire to be great. It was concealed by a relaxed, almost nonchalant personal style, but I saw it in his eyes and felt it when we talked.

I’ll cherish for the rest of my days those conversations we had over the past two springs, how thrilled I was to watch him in his final performance against the Athletics. He pitched his way through trouble like a veteran that night, confident and in command.

Before the game, I was talking with Chone Figgins and Howard Kendrick when Nick walked past on his way to the training room. We’d talked about how he’d matured, how ready he was – and he gave me a look and a grin that told me everything I wanted to know.

He was ready for the challenge, fully prepared for the challenges awaiting him. He had found all the answers he’d been searching for, and now it was his time.

So, here’s my answer: I think he could have joined Don Sutton in the Hall of Fame someday. That’s how talented, how driven, Nick Adenhart was as a baseball player. As a person, he was a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, about as good as it gets.

Advantage, Beckett and Boston

So here’s the deal: Josh Beckett comes up and in on Bobby Abreu after time is called by the home-plate umpire, Paul Schreiber, and the upshot is the Angels lose their Gold Glove center fielder, their manager, their hitting coach and a middle reliever.

The Red Sox? They lose nobody, nothing.

This is how if often goes in sports. It’s the player/team that responds or retaliates that usually suffers the consequences.

The Angels lost Torii Hunter, Mike Scisocia, Mickey Hatcher and Justin Speier after the benches cleared. Order appeared restored before Beckett had words with Scioscia, and that’s what incited a second incident that led to all the Angels’ ejections.

I am aware of no history between Beckett and Abreu dating to their days as Red Sox-Yankees rivals. Abreu hasn’t done much against the ace over the years — .210 coming into the game with two homers and five RBIs. But Abreu did deliver a big hit, a two-run single, that gave the Angels a 3-2 lead in the third inning.

The best Angels hitter against Beckett has been Hunter, a .455 average with a double and two RBIs in 11 career at-bats. Gary Matthews Jr., who replaced Hunter, was 2-for-15 against Beckett (.133) coming into the game.

Matthews, who unleashed a spectacular throw to first from left center, only to watch Kendry Morales drop a shot at a double play in the top of the third, grounded out in his first two at-bats against Beckett. Morales’ misplay didn’t cost the Angels. Dustin Moseley got the next hitter, Dustin Pedroia, to bounce into a double play.

  

Remembering Nick

Nick Adenhart grinned in that shy, off-hand manner of his and told me he liked my sweater. I thanked him and told him I’d try to find one just like it for him. He might have thought I was kidding, but I was serious. It was going right to the top of my to-do list.

I wanted to go over to his locker after the group interview on Wednesday night at Angel Stadium for a few private minutes with him, to let him know how happy I was for him. I’d developed a lot of affection for him these past few years, and it had been painful to watch him struggle when he came up last May, searching for the right stuff and not finding it. He wasn’t quite ready, maybe, but he had complete confidence that he would figure it out. I could see that. I wasn’t worried about Nick. He had courage and confidence to go with the tools. He was going places. It was just a matter of time.

Now, in his fourth Major League start, he’d shut out the A’s for six innings, using not just his physical gifts but the knowledge and intelligence he’d acquired over a winter of intently studying his craft. But I had other interviews to do and a story to go write, so I did what I do. I’d have a nice sit-down with Nick next chance I got.   

A few hours later, having pitched a game that I was convinced was going to be his springboard to a long, successful career and certain stardom, he was struck down in one of those senseless accidents. Nick Adenhart, who I’d grown to care so much about, was gone.

I’ve been doing this, writing professionally about athletes and the games they play, for four decades. But I am not capable enough to express my grief over the news of Nick’s death. It is too deep, too profound. He was not just another talented young ballplayer with a big arm and a big future. He was a wonderful young man, one I’d have been proud to call a son. Or a son in law.

I have two daughters, no sons. In my travels as a sportswriter across the map over the years I have forged bonds with athletes from different angles and perspectives. There was a time, when I was young and full of life, that I socialized with some guys generous enough and adventurous enough to welcome me into their worlds. We had some good times.

As I got older, the relationship with young athletes evolved into something more paternal. With some athletes, such as Nick, I began to feel protective, as I would a son. There were times when they would confide in me and if they asked, I would offer advice, counsel. It had nothing to do with my work, really. It was about making connections with people I cared about. Nick certainly was one of these people, along with at least a dozen other young Angels.

Nick and I would have brief talks, occasionally a long one. This spring, stretching out at a table outside the clubhouse at Tempe Diablo Stadium, he opened up about a variety of subjects. There was a shy quality about him I always found endearing, and I felt honored that he would confide in me.

The story I ended up writing was about how he’d spent the winter studying the masters on video, such legends as Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Nick was completely absorbed in becoming as good as he could be. He dreamed about being a big-league pitcher since he was 8 or 9 years old, and here he was, on the threshold.

It meant everything to him. I don’t mind admitting I was pulling hard for him.

Writing through tears is never easy. I weep for his family, for friends and teammates past and present, for anyone who had the good fortune to get to know Nick Adenhart.

He was a prince of a young man. I’m feeling empty and lost today knowing I won’t be having any more talks with Nick, and that I won’t go searching for another sweater like the blue/green one he took a fancy to on the night he showed that he had the right stuff to be a great Major League pitcher for many years to come.

   

Howard Kendrick goes deep

The first home run by an Angels hitter in 2009 was produced by Howard Kendrick in the fifth inning on Monday night against Oakland lefty Dallas Braden. It was a blast, to right center, where Kendrick generates most of his power. Earlier, Kendrick had driven in the first run of the season with a line-drive single to right.

Future batting champ at work.

He’s going to be Howard Kendrick on mlb.com this season, not Howie. He is Howard in the Angels’ media guide, and, most importantly, he is Howard to his wife, Jody.

We talked about this one bright afternoon during Spring Training, new mom Jody holding Christmas baby son Owen Howard Kendrick, at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Jody told me they’ve learned to separate private Howard from public, baseball Howie, but I’m going with Howard.

When I asked him about it, Kendrick related the story of how a bubble gum card company wanted to use Howie, not Howard, on his card, and being the easy-going, agreeable gentleman he is, he said fine. Then it was a PA guy at a Minor League park calling him Howie, and it has stuck.

“When I hear people in the stands call Howie, I know they don’t know me,” Kendrick told me. “When I hear them say Howard, then I look. Those are the people who know me.”

Howard fits him. It was the name given him by his parents. Howie was somebody’s creation. I’m going with Howard here.

Besides, I’ve always believed in this truism: When in doubt, go with what the wife says. Jody Jensen, Mrs. Kendrick, says Howard. That clinches it for me.

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