June 2009

Picking up slack for Shields, Arredondo

In the absence of Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo — the two set-up artists most responsible for getting the ball to Francisco Rodriguez for 69 save opportunities last season — the Angels suddenly are getting some consistent production.

Veterans Justin Speier and Darren Oliver and right-handers Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen have been solid in the seventh and eighth innings during the Angels’ recent run of high-caliber play, primarily against a National League West that the record shows has been the best of the NL’s three divisions this season.

Bulger, who worked two scoreless innings to wrap up Friday night’s 12-3 decision over the D-backs, has had 20 clean outings — giving up no runs — in his past 23 appearances. The D-backs first-round pick in 2001, Bulger is putting it together this season, finding consistency with his fastball command and his big curveball with an occasional changeup helping keep hitters off balance.

Bulger’s ERA is 4.78 — not where he’d like it to be — but that is mainly a reflection of three grand slams he has yielded. Right-handers are batting only .207 against him.

Speier has shaved his ERA to a more respectable 4.33 by yielding only three earned runs across his past 16 innings (1.69). With 19 of his past 25 outings clean, he has stranded seven of eight inherited runners. That’s always a good way to enhance your popularity among teammates.

Oliver, as cool as any pitcher in the game, owns a 3.09 ERA after his scoreless inning on Friday night. Going back to last season, the classy lefty has kept the opposition scoreless in 41 of 52 appearances.

Jepsen, who lost his rhythm while experiencing back issues early in the season, appears to be back in a nice groove, with five of his past seven appearances scoreless. It will take him several months to get his 11.81 ERA down to a respectable level, but he appears to be moving in that direction.

Hoping to find consistent form are Rich Thompson and Rafael Rodriguez, a pair of talented right-handers. The stuff is excellent. It’s just a matter of putting it together.  

Too early to give up on Vlad

He’s finished. Swings at everything. Can’t get around on good fastballs. Can’t run. He used to be so great. What a shame to see him like this.

We’ve heard this before about Vladimir Guerrero.

One year and one month ago, to be precise.

Guerrero came into June last season in a sub-.250, horrendous slump. Doomsayers were writing him off left and right, claiming age — he was at least 45, right? — finally had caught up with the Angels’ great right fielder.

Well, he had a fairly strong response to that, if you’ll recall. Going on an absolute tear, Vladimir Nizao Guerrero, from Nizao, Dominican Republic, finished the season at .303 with 27 homers, 91 RBIs.

Considering how dismal his first two months had been, those numbers were a little astonishing. They enabled him to join Lou Gehrig as the only players in history with at least 25 homers and a .300 or higher batting average for 11 consecutive seasons. Nice company to keep,the Iron Horse.

The streak stops this season. There is no way Vlad is going to reach 25 homers, having stroked just one in his first 132 at-bats. The Angels are hoping the power stroke comes back a month later than last season, when he began to drive the ball in June and carried it to the finish line.

He is having a hard time getting any lift in his swing, grounding into eight double plays, more than one-sixth of the team’s total. In situations where he needs a fly ball, he’s rolling over and hitting ground balls to shortstop.

Manager Mike Scioscia and the staff have talked about moving him down in the order, to relieve whatever pressure the big bopper is feeling. But he was back in the No. 4 spot on Wednesday night for the series finale against the Rockies, between Torii Hunter and Juan Rivera, the club’s most productive hitters this season along with Kendry Morales.

It has to be killing Guerrero, but he doesn’t show it. He’s the same easy-going, humble, graceful guy he’s always been. The only difference is the streamlined look atop his head, making him look quite a bit younger than his 34 years.

“Right now,” Scioscia said, “he’s searching for some things. He’s a little frustrated. He has taken on challenges [in his career] like not many guys I’ve seen. It’s incredible, as banged up as he’s been, to put the numbers up and perform at his level. He’s as good as it gets in taking challenges.

“He’s expanded his zone and is long to the ball in some of his at-bats. Where his bat path is right now, he’s going to work hard to adjust that. Mickey [Hatcher, hitting coach] has been working with him on some things. He needs at-bats — move him [down] in the batting order, a day off. Hopefully, with some of these small adjustments he’s going to feel comfortable and start driving the ball the way we know he can.”

Guerrero, who went 3-for-3 in San Francisco in a pinch-hitting role, will return to that duty against the Diamondbacks when the Angels wrap up Interleague Play in Phoenix over the weekend.

That will have him rested for a series against the Rangers in Arlington, where he has a history of crushing balls. Maybe he’ll find himself deep in the heart of Texas — and quiet the critics again.    

Recalling fatherly wisdom

When Gary “Sarge” Matthews was teaching his son the finer points of the game during Gary Jr.’s youth, there were insights and expressions culled from a life spent in baseball that resonate all these years later with the Angels’ outfielder.

“My dad used to tell me that he could teach me how to hit breaking balls and changeups – but either you can hit a fastball or you can’t,” Gary Jr. was saying on Father’s Day, his dad in Philadelphia where he works as a commentator on Phillies telecasts.

“My dad is as old school as it gets. That still rings true, but I have formed my own opinions over the years. I think one change in the game is that pitchers have evolved and now throw more breaking balls for strikes. Controlling the breaking ball, and not relying on fastballs as much early in counts, has changed things.”

In Detroit on the recent road trip, Matthews launched a 100-mph heater by Joel Zumaya – the hardest thrower in the game – deep into the right-field seats, foul. He’d turned on triple digits and was a split-second out in front of it, a display of remarkably quick hands.

On Saturday night at Angel Stadium, Matthews came off the bench in the ninth inning and launched a fastball from Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton into the seats in right center, turning a 6-2 deficit into what would be a 6-4 loss. It was the first Angels pinch-hit homer of the year and the fourth of Matthews’ career.

“I’ve never been accused of not being able to hit a fastball,” Matthews said, grinning.

Walking past Matthews’ locker, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said, “You can’t put one past him.”

Matthews is a man without a position, a man who wants to play every day but has no steady job with the Angels. Juan Rivera has been on fire in left, joining Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu in the outfield with Vladimir Guerrero absorbing designated-hitter at-bats.

Matthews has made it clear all season that he doesn’t think of himself as a backup and will not be happy in that role. He thinks he’s one of the game’s most gifted center fielders, and Hunter – the best – agrees. But that is not much consolation. When you’re an athlete and you’re sitting, you don’t feel right.

All Matthews can do now is accept his role and make the best of a difficult situation. He is an expensive insurance policy, a card that will remain in manager Mike Scioscia’s deck most of the time until someone in front of him is injured or falls into a major slump.

“Not much I can do about it,” Matthews said. “I’ll just keep working and be ready when I’m called on.”

His old-school dad is on the cellphone with his son all the time, offering perspective, support, all the things a young man needs when he’s frustrated.

It is possible something could happen around the July 31 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, Matthews acquiring sudden appeal to a club in need of a quality center fielder. His salary – he’s in the third year of a five-year, $50 million contract – makes it unlikely. And not because Matthews has the contractual right to refuse a trade, as Jake Peavy did when the White Sox and Padres had worked out a deal.

Matthews yearns to be an everyday center fielder, but he’s on a club that employs the game’s best. It’s like being the guy who thought he’d have a crack at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo showed up with his brushes and paints.
   

Weavers keeping it light, lively

On the eve of their first-ever matchup in competition on Saturday night at Angel Stadium, Jeff and Jered Weaver were in high spirits on Friday afternoon as they addressed the SoCal media.

Growing up in Simi Valley, a 75-minute freeway ride away to the north, the Weavers were six years apart. Jered, the kid, naturally shadowed his big brother at every opportunity.

Now it’s Jeff, a spot starter with the Dodgers, looking up to Jered, the Angels’ best pitcher this season — and a certain American League All-Star for the first time if he stays the course that has him leading or near the lead in most of the important AL pitching categories, such as wins, winning percentage, ERA, strikeouts, innings and batting average against.

“We’ve grown a lot closer over the last eight to 10 years,” Jered said. “I was 16 years old, just got my driver’s license, and this guy’s going to the big leagues. I always wanted to follow his footsteps.”

On occasion, Jered apparently got a little too close to Jeff’s sneakers. 

“I was the big bully brother,” Jeff said, grinning. “Sometimes it seems like he was tagging along too much. I had a driver’s license, and he was 10 years old.”

It’s easy to see that in this part of the country, events are measured by the driver’s license, a passport to a whole new world of possibilities.

There will be 30 to 35 family members and close friends attending this first meeting of the Weavers. Their father, Dave, a terrific basketball player at Granada Hills High School before military service called, will be hard to keep in his seat, according to Jered.

Talk about memorable Father’s Day weekends . . .

“Dad’s probably going to [be given] arm’s distance,” Jered said. “Usually he sits down when we’re not pitching. He’s probably going to be walking around the whole time.”

Jeff had already established himself as a quality Major League pitcher when he began to sense that his kid brother might turn out to be something special. Jeff got that feeling initially watching Jered fly around a basketball court, where he shaped himself in his dad’s image with a smooth shooting stroke and a high-level game.

“I’d get back for Christmas break,” Jeff said, “and they’d be playing the [holiday] basketball tournament. He was something to watch. You could tell he had it.

“When he made the decision to strictly focus on baseball [at Long Beach State], it didn’t take him long at all. When I was back to catch a few games, I could see what he had in baseball his sophomore year. It was a no-brainer.”

Jered brought the biggest laugh of the press conference when someone asked who he felt his parents would be pulling hardest for in this head-to-head battle.

“I think they’ll definitely root for Jeff,” Jered said, beaming. “They always loved him a lot.”

Responded Jeff: “More pressure on me, that’s all.”

 

 

 

Guerrero starts to throw

It wasn’t all gloom and despair in the Angels’ dugout before Monday night’s game against the Giants with Kelvim Escobar going to the DL and Ervin Santana having his start on Tuesday night pushed back because of shoulder discomfort.

Vladimir Guerrero, who can light up any room with his smile, was beaming as he signed autographs before taking batting practice.

The big bopper started his throwing program on Monday — small steps, but important ones — and you just know he can’t wait to get back on the field.

“It felt good,” Vlad said through that luminous smile. “It’s a start, right?”

We have these conversations where I speak Spanish and he speaks English, and they can be immensely enjoyable to both of us. When he bounded into the dugout with Maicer Izturis and Kendry Morales and I said, in Spanish, “three handsome Latino ballplayers,” he laughed and said, “No, two.”

I have a pretty good idea which of the three he wasn’t calling handsome, but I’m not saying. It wouldn’t be good for club harmony.  

Kobe, Weaver and Bird, and longing for the old daze

Jered Weaver looked at me, and this is what his astonished eyes said: “You’re crazy.”

He was right, of course, but that was beside the point.

It was Saturday afternoon in the Angels’ clubhouse, and a bright, new Kobe Bryant jersey was hanging next to Weaver’s locker. My mind started racing. Weaver loves the Lakers. Like Gary Matthews Jr. and Sean Rodriguez, two other big Lakers fans, Jered actually has listened, with sincere interest, to my tales of the amazing ’80s when I was traveling with Magic, Kareem and Co., the greatest show on Planet Sports.

Strictly spur of the moment, I ran an idea past Weaver, who was pitching what would turn out to be his first career shutout, against the Padres, the next day.

“Jered,” I said, “why don’t you put the jersey on  before you go to the mound on Sunday – a show of support for your other team – and have one of the clubbies come running out to take it as you pulled it off and waved it to the crowd? The Lakers are playing after your game, so it would be a nice touch.

“It would make all the highlight shows,” I added, “but more than that, it would be a show of solidarity. I think the fans would love it.”

That’s when he gave me that look that told me I was crazy.

He probably couldn’t have gotten it past manager Mike Scioscia, anyway. Mike is a serious-minded guy who fully adheres to all the principles about respecting the game, and I appreciate that.

But the game also could use some color, some characters in addition to all that character. Some honest emotion, from deepest left field if necessary, wouldn’t hurt from time to time.

I told Weaver, as he stood there in amused disbelief over my suggestion, that it was my idea to have Detroit Tigers sensation Mark Fidrych speak to baseballs and manicure pitching mounds in the mid-1970s.

It was a complete lie, and he called me on it immediately. But I did know “The Bird” and spent one memorable night out with him in Detroit after he’d shut out the Angels.

That was the same night I sat beside Fidrych in the home dugout at old Tiger Stadium and watched about 50,000 people stay in their seats for 15 minutes after the game while “Bird” did a radio interview, a headset wrapped around his curly head of wild hair.

“What’s going on here?” I asked him, pointing to all the people who’d remained in the house after the game, just sitting there.

“Watch,” he said, grinning.

When the radio interview was over, he pulled off the headset jumped up on the dugout steps and waved to the crowd, which rose and cheered for at least a full minute before finally dispersing.

It remains to this day one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed, a stunning show of unbridled love for an athlete who clearly moved to his own beat and did pretty much what he felt like at all times, without regard for how critics would react.

I long for those old days, but they’re gone, gone, gone. So is Fidrych, who died in an accident not long after Nick Adenhart, another pitcher with uncommon talent, left us in this most distressing of baseball seasons.

Bird, I’m sure, would have put on that Kobe jersey, happily, without hesitation.

In fact, it would have been his idea.

It was a less structured, less controlled, less serious world back then.

I miss it terribly.

 

 

Shields out for the season

Scot Shields, one of the Majors’ best and most durable relievers, will have surgery on Tuesday to repair patellar tendinitis in his left knee. According to manager Mike Scioscia, Shields is lost for the season.

The Angels will go with a comittee for now to replace Shields in the eighth inning, featuring Darren Oliver, Kevin Jepsen, Justin Speier and Jason Bulger. Kelvim Escobar hopes to join the mix soon and could emerge as the eighth-inning specialist in front of Brian Fuentes if his shoulder holds up to the stress. Escobar threw 92 pitches in his comeback start in Detroit and found that he experiences pain after about 75 pitches, forcing his move to the bullpen.

Escobar optimistic he can fill Shields void

Kelvim Escobar’s first experience as a relief pitcher in a big-game setting was unforgettable. To this day, it’s one of his enduring memories.

“I was 21 years old, just getting started with the Blue Jays,” Escobar recalled, going back to 1997 in his mind. “It was Roger Clemens’ first game back in Boston after going to Toronto, and everybody was going crazy that day.

“I was so very nervous when I came in. I was always a starter, and I’d pitched in two games before this. It was amazing, the energy of that crowd. Roger had 16 strikeouts [and no walks] and we had a 3-1 lead. I was so pumped up I was throwing 100 miles an hour.”

Escobar went to a 1-2 count against Wil Cordero, a right-handed hitter, and got him to fly out to right field. That was the only hitter he faced that day. It took three more Jays relievers to finish the job for Clemens and preserve the victory.

Now that he knows he’s going back to the bullpen — his body having informed him in one exercise in Detroit on the recent road trip that anything beyond 75 pitches brought back the pain in his surgically repaired right shoulder — Escobar will be leaning on memories like that one to get back into a reliever’s frame of mind.

Escobar, who will begin plalying catch on Monday in San Francisco with the hope of getting on a mound soon afterward. He could become a major force in the eighth inning with Scot Shields — master of that role for the past five seasons with the Angels — out for the season with knee surgery set for Tuesday.

“It’s nothing new for me,” Escobar said. “I’ve done it before — setting up, closing, middle relief, all of it. It’s different than starting, a different challenge.

“I think once my arm is [conditioned] to relieving, I’ll be in good shape. I’ve had no problems up to 75 pitches, and I won’t need that many in the bullpen.

“It would be great for the team if I’m able to pitch down there. If I can work up to pitching back-to-back games, it would take pressure off a lot of guys. I’m very versatile. If they needed me for two or three innings, I could even do that. But probably the best thing would be one inning of my best stuff.”

Escobar’s best stuff, in any role, is about as good as it gets. He was throwing consistently in the mid-90s in Detroit on June 6, pitching five strong innings (two earned runs) but picking up the loss because Tigers right-hander Edwin Jackson was dominant.

Along with his four-seam heat, Escobar can move a two-seam fastball down in the strike zone and keep hitters guessing with a curveball, split-fingered fastball and first-rate changeup.

Coming out of the bullpen, he’ll probably rely almost exclusively on the two fastballs, changeup and curve. He’ll have no need for a slider that can cause arm strain.

“Eskie’s a great pitcher,” Shields said. “He and Darren [Oliver] are great for all the young guys on the staff with their knowledge and leadership. When Eskie’s feeling good and on his game, he’s overpowering. If he can be that guy, we’ll be in good shape.”

Escobar notched 38 of his 59 career saves in 2002 with the Jays, making a career-high 76 appearances and finishing 68 games. He last worked out of the bullpen in 2005, making nine relief appearances in a season hindered by elbow issues. 

   

Wood expanding his horizons

Brandon Wood is a natural shortstop who learned how to play third base capably. Now he is increasing his versatilty by another position, playing first base with remarkable dexterity for someone with no experience with the big glove.

This scouting report comes courtesy of Sean Rodriguez, who played alongside Wood in the Triple-A Salt Lake infield as recently as Friday night in Reno during an extra-inning game the Bees lost despite Wood going deep and driving in a pair of runs. Rodriguez, playing second, marveled at how quickly his buddy has adapted to another new position.

“Woody made some great plays down there,” Rodriguez said. “He went across his body to catch one throw that kept them from winning in regulation. The ball would have probably sailed into the stands, but Woody’s an athlete, and he showed it on that play.

“There was another ball headed for the hole, and I was on my way to try to make the play. But Woody got there first and got the out throwing to the pitcher covering. He was there in a heartbeat, man. That was a big-league play.

“He’s 6-3 with soft hands and quick feet. He’s a natural down there at first. But he’s a little concerned, I think, that people might start to think he’s not a shortstop. Believe me, he can play short in the big leagues. No question in my mind.”

Wood had two excellent performances for the Angels at third base, filling in for Chone Figgins, before getting sent to Salt Lake. The Angels won both those games, and Wood had a positive impact each time. He came up big against CC Sabathia in Yankee Stadium with a clutch hit igniting a decisive rally.

Wood carried a .333 average with one walk and two strikeouts in 10 plate appearances to the PCL. He’s batting .299 with 14 homers and 35 RBIs in 44 games. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) is .986.

Wood has made major strides in pitch recognition and plate discipline. How long the Angels can keep him down on the farm remains to be seen, but it’s increasingly baffling to a lot of people that a club that ranks last in the American League in homers and eighth in slugging can’t find a role for one of the premier power prospects in the game.    

Draft looks good, but time will tell

Day one of the First-Year Player Draft, from a casual fan’s point of view, couldn’t have gone much better for the Angels.

In the first round, they landed a couple of high school kids who can mash. Randal Grichuk, from deep in the heart of Texas, and Mike Trout, a Jersey kid, could be the Tim Salmon (that would be Trout, naturally) and Garret Anderson of the next generation.

In conference calls, these fresh-faced youngsters sounded optimistic and upbeat and thrilled on one of the biggest days of their lives. Ah, to be a teen with a whole world of possibilities.

Nobody knows where their destinies will take them. That’s the thing about the MLB Draft — it takes years to get the final word. But it certainly will be a lot of fun following the paths of these kids.

Trout is a center fielder and an athlete, a basketball and football player. Grichuk — pronounced Gri-chick — is a born hitter. Here’s to good health and long, productive careers for both.

As a proud Santa Monica High School alum, I was thrilled with the Angels’ first compensation pick, southpaw Tyler Skaggs. A fellow Viking, he’s tall and gifted and I will chart his progress closely.

After right-hander Garrett Richards from Oklahoma — he’ll be buddies with Reggie Willits in no time — the Angels went on a run of southpaws, loading up in an area of need. Of course, I have to be a little partial to third-round pick Joshua Spence, an native of the wonderful land of Australia. You never can have too many Spences on the scene. 

Eddie Bane, the Angels’ scouting director, is immensely respected in the game for his ability to not only identify talent but to believe in the judgments of his area scouts.

Nobody can look into the future, but something tells me this someday will be remembered as one of the greatest drafts in franchise history. If I’m wrong, you’ll have to look me up in four or five years to find me and tell me how dead wrong I was..

   

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