September 2009

Scioscia defends celebration

Angels manager Mike Scioscia believes criticism of the team’s celebration after its American League West title-clinching on Monday night at Angel Stadium is unwarranted.

By dousing the late Nick Adenhart’s jersey with beer and champagne and making a trip to the center field wall to touch his memorial, players brought the memory of their former teammate into the celebration. Adenhart was killed in an April 9 car crash by an intoxicated motorist charged with multiple murders of the pitcher and companions Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson.

Those who would contend the manner of celebration was inappropriate, given the conditions under which Adenhart lost his life, are off base in Scioscia’s judgment. He felt it was an honor and a tribute by the Angels players with respect to Adenhart, a 22-year-old right-hander who shut out the Athletics in six innings hours before he was killed in his only start of the season.

“You have to understand these players and the tribute it really means to pour champagne on them,” Scioscia said. “It’s not the alcohol. It’s like a whipped cream pie in the face.

“The whole thing with Nick was an extraordinary time for all of us. It was very sincere and special, and it was meaningful to the clubhouse.

“Last night was helpful maybe to a lot of players, being able to be at peace with it in honoring Nick in a special way. It will be a part of everybody here who experienced it.”

Scioscia said pitching coach Mike Butcher was in contact with Adenhart’s father, Jim, after the title clinching and was told the celebration was “very touching.”

 

Abreu in exclusive company

ANAHEIM – Bobby Abreu sat at his locker before Sunday’s game at Angel Stadium against the Athletics, engrossed in a showdown between the Yankees, his old team, and the Red Sox on a flat screen TV.

Abreu reached another personal milestone in a season loaded with them on Saturday night: 100 RBIs for the seventh year in a row. Only Albert Pujols has done that, but Abreu was reasonably certain a former teammate – Alex Rodriguez – would be joining them shortly.

“Alex has 94,” Abreu said, nodding toward the wide-screen TV. “He should get there without much trouble.”

Abreu clearly was pleased – and relieved – to have reached 100 with a two-run homer, his 14th, in the fourth inning of what was to be a 15-10 loss to the sizzling Athletics on Saturday night.

“That’s a good one,” Abreu said, “Albert and me . . .  and Alex coming.”

Abreu has been made aware of another milestone in his reach. He’s one steal away from 30, which would bring him in the company of Barry Bonds as the only players to combine at least 30 steals and at least 100 RBIs in five seasons.

Abreu last did it in 2006, the season he split with the Phillies and Yankees. In the Bronx, A-Rod coming up behind him, Abreu wasn’t encouraged to steal. With the born-to-run Angels, he has the green light to go when he sees the opportunity, and he has succeeded on 29 of 37 sprints.

“Bobby’s a very smart baserunner,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “He knows what he’s doing out there.”

In terms of career numbers, what impresses Chone Figgins — who lockers next door and is usually immersed in baseball conversation with Abreu – is the fact that the right fielder has scored more career runs (1,265) than he has driven home (1,184).

“You can only score them one at a time,” Figgins said. “You can drive them in two, three, four at a time. That shows you how much Bobby’s been on base – and how well he has run the bases.”

Abreu was back in the No. 2 spot in the order on Sunday against Edgar Gonzalez, with Erick Aybar batting ninth in front of Figgins, giving him, in effect, two leadoff men to set the table.

 

Scioscia tries something different

As promised, Angels manager Mike Scioscia shuffled his lineup for Saturday night’s game, trying to find some missing chemistry – and runs – after going 0-for-19 the previous two games with runners in scoring position and striking out a total of 28 times.

Bobby Abreu was bumped up to No. 2 from No. 3, with Torii Hunter assuming the spot between Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero. Giving Erick Aybar a day off and taking over at shortstop, Maicer Izturis was placed in the No. 9 spot, giving the Angels a pair of table-setters in front of Abreu.

Two RBIs shy of 100 for the seventh straight year, Abreu has not been himself lately. He is in a 2-for-27 slide with 14 strikeouts, an uncommonly high number for a guy known not only for his ability to work counts but to put the bat on the ball and move it around the field.

By hitting Abreu second, Scioscia might free him up from thinking about driving in runs in favor of putting the ball in play behind leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins.

Abreu, 35, has 640 plate appearances in 145 games, trailing only Figgins among teammates. It could be a case of mental fatigue setting in for Abreu, who has made 119 starts in right field, 10 in left and 12 as a DH.

“I don’t know if it’s mental fatigue,” Scioscia said. “We talk to him every day to make sure he’s moving in the right direction. He feels fine physically. Mentally, he’s as strong as anybody I’ve been around.

“I don’t think that’s an issue. He’s been through pennant races. For a while he started squaring it up, but lately, obviously, he’s trying to find some things.”

Catchers Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis have been spending most of the time in the No. 9 spot with Abreu batting third. The start in that spot is the fourth for Izturis, and the Angels are unbeaten with him in the No. 9 hole.

“In theory, there are more options [with Izturis in front of Figgins],” Scioscia said. “We’re going to try to connect our hitters with this lineup, and the situational look is going to have to come from the bottom.”

Despite their recent struggles, eight of the nine hitters in the lineup were at .288 (Juan Rivera) or higher, but only three – Figgins and Kendry Morales (both at .301) and Hunter (.300) — were at .300 or better. Mathis is batting .209.

Guerrero, in quest of a 13th consecutive season batting at least .300, comes in at .296.

Even with their 0-for-19 the past two games, the Angels still lead the Majors in hitting with runners in scoring position at .295 and lead in overall batting average as well at .284.

 

 

Figgins back in groove

ANAHEIM – Angels third baseman Chone Figgins has done several things this season better than anybody in the American League.

He has reached base 274 times heading into a three-game weekend series against the Athletics, and he has 98 walks. Leading the AL in both categories, he also is tied for the lead in runs scored (109) with Boston’s Dustin Pedroia.

Back-to-back three-hit games against the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday brought Figgins back over the .300 mark, to .301. His .399 on-base percentage has him tied for fifth in the AL with the Yankees’ Derek Jeter, the only leadoff man to get on base that frequently.

With a .471 stretch through his past 17 at-bats, Figgins has put a .188 stretch in 32 at-bats in his rear-view mirror.

“You’re not always going to get hits to fall,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “Even thought hits weren’t falling, he was still getting on base, walking. That’s what makes him a dynamic offensive player. He can get on base even when he’s not swinging the bat well. He’s done that.”

It was Bobby Abreu, arguably the most disciplined hitter in the sport, who pointed something out to Figgins early in the season that his next-locker neighbor has not forgotten.

“Bobby said, `You’re a good hitter. Be more selective. Because you’re a leadoff hitter, that’s what’s going to set you apart.’ He said, `You may not get two hits in a game, but going 0-for-2 with two walks and scoring two runs, you’ve had a great game.

“He said I could do that without taking away my aggressiveness. You get a pitch to hit, go after it. It’s interesting what has happened this year. I’m getting a lot of first-pitch changeups, curveballs. They’re showing me respect. They know if I get a pitch I can handle, I can drive it.”

Figgins has five homers for the season, but two have come in the past four games. He is four runs away from matching his career high of 113 from 2005.

With 42 steals, third in the AL, he’s 20 away from his career high set in that same 2005 season when he played a career-best 158 games and batted .290.

Having played a team-high 149 games, Figgins could finish with 159. But it’s not likely he’ll continue to play every game in the aftermath of a third consecutive American League West title.

On top of his endurance and offensive productivity, Figgins is clearly a strong candidate for the AL Rawlings Gold Glove for his brilliant play at third base. 

 

Guerrero gets a day off

Vladimir Guerrero, like fellow cleanup man Alex Rodriguez from the other side, was given a day off on Wednesday as the Angels and Yankees got together in the bright sunlight of Angels Stadium for their final regular-season date.

They could meet again in October, and if that happens, neither Guerrero nor A-Rod will be skipping any at-bats or innings. With a scheduled day off on Thursday, Guerrero gets two days off his feet, which ought to restore some life in his legs. 

“Just a day [off],” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of his designated hitter, who is batting .299 (with 15 homers and 47 RBIs in 91 games) in his quest to reach .300 for a 13th consecutive season. “He’ll be ready on Friday [against Oakland].

“He’s played a long time with a lot of swings. You can talk about DHing, and obviously it’s not as demanding as playing in the field. But there’s still a lot that goes into what a guy has to do. Especially since he’s been dealing with leg issues, which put him on the DL the second time.”

Bobby Abreu was in the DH spot against A.J. Burnett, with Gary Matthews Jr. getting a start in right field.

Guerrero, who had right knee surgery last October, opened the season with a torn pectoral muscle that cost him 35 games when it was diagnosed on April 18. He returned on May 25 and sustained a strained lower right hamstring, in the upper calf area, making a play in right field, putting him back on the DL from July 8 to Aug. 4.

A total of 56 lost games cost him a realistic shot at his 12th consecutive season with at least 25 homers and a .300-plus batting average. He’s with Lou Gehrig as the only players ever to do that 11 years in succession.

In the past 50 years, only Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew, spray hitters with speed, managed to bat at least .300 for at least 12 seasons in a row, a streak Guerrero started in 1997 on Montreal’s carpet.

One more historical reference point underscores how truly unique this man has been in his amazing career.  With a .322 career average and 407 home runs, Guerrero is in a club of six with Jimmie Foxx, Gehrig, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams at .320-plus and 400-plus.

Someday, Vlad will join the legends in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of immortals.

 
  

Schedule no ally of Angels — or Yanks

If you want to get Mike Scioscia’s undivided attention, ask him what he thinks of the schedule. The Angels’ manager goes straight to the point without a hint of slowing down to find the right politically correct words.

“The schedule’s a joke,” Scioscia said before Tuesday night’s showdown with the Bronx Bombers at Angel Stadium. “You should be [playing] in your own division early in the season, the middle of the season and in September.

“For the sake of division rivalry, that should be the way it goes. The fact we’re swinging back East [for four games in New York and Boston [Sept. 14-17] and [the Yankees] are coming out West [for six games against the Mariners and Angels, Sept. 18-23] makes no sense.”

The Angels had a 10-day, 10-game trip through Baltimore, Cleveland and Toronto from Aug. 14-23.

Sept. 14 was an off-day on the schedule, but a rainout in New York in early May forced a postponement to that date. After a night game at Yankee Stadium, the troupe flew to Boston for three night games, with a game waiting in Texas on Friday.

Their day off on Thursday will the Angels’ second free day since Aug. 13 when they embarked on that East Coast junket.

Scioscia is careful not to give his players any openings to make excuses for unfocused performances. But he played the game long enough to know how draining 49 games in 51 days can be, which is why he is careful to give regulars occasional days “off their feet,” as he puts it.

Since Aug. 3, the Angels have had two days off: Aug. 13, when they traveled to Baltimore, and Sept. 3, when they traveled from Seattle to Kansas City.
 
There are members of the Yankees traveling party who would nod heartily in agreement with Scioscia’s assessment of the schedule.

The Bombers have made two trips to the West Coast since the All-Star break, starting with a seven-game journey through Seattle and Oakland Aug. 13-19.

The New York continent couldn’t help noticing that their big rivals, the Red Sox, were done with the Pacific Time Zone on May 17 when they wrapped up a three-game series in Seattle following three games in Anaheim against the Angels.

The Red Sox journeyed to Oakland and Anaheim April 10-15.

Boston traveled to Texas in July and August, one time zone away. The Sox have a three-game set in Kansas City, again one time zone away.

This might seem like a relatively minor issue, but anybody who has made the change from playing for an East Coast or Midwest team to a West Coast outfit can detail how draining coast-to-coast travel can be over the long course of a season.

“I had no idea how rough travel was out here,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. “In Minnesota, everything was two, three hours away. With this team, we’re flying six hours to the East Coast and always trying to adjust to time changes. It’s a big adjustment, believe me. Travel out here is much more difficult.”

Yankees diehards might be excused for arguing that Boston, staying in the East and Central time zones throughout the second half, was handed a scheduling advantage. They might use it to explain why the Sox appear fresh and are finishing strong – eight wins in the past 10 games – while the Yankees have endured a sluggish period, winning four of the past 10 since Sept. 11.

The Yankees have a day off on Thursday to get rested and revved for three big weekend games at home against the Red Sox.

As for the Angels, they finish with 10 games inside the division – including six, three home and three away, against an Oakland team that is loose and playing well, with wins in eight of the past 10.

At least, Scioscia would concede, the schedule-makers got that right.

 
 

 

Projecting playoff rotation

Ask Mike Scioscia if he’s pondering his playoff rotation, and he’ll give you a look he used to reserve for pitchers who threw at his head.

This is a man who simply won’t discuss October baseball until the Angels have reduced their magic number to zero.

That leaves it to those of us in the business of speculation to, well, speculate. If the playoffs were to begin tomorrow – a lovely thought, actually – the Angels would be welcoming the Red Sox to Angel Stadium, a modern facility with all the amenities not found in the creepy-crawly visiting clubhouse at storied Fenway Park.

After careful evaluation of performances from the recent past and very recent past, here is how your correspondent would anticipate the Angels’ starters shaping up for Games 1 and 2: John Lackey and Jered Weaver.

Lackey, the acknowledged ace and staff leader, also has been on a very nice second half roll. He has been the Game 1 starter the past two seasons against Boston, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be matched up against Josh Beckett again, as in 2007, or Jon Lester, as in 2008.

Weaver has earned the Game 2 start as the club’s most durable starter all year, and he has done his best work at home.

As for Game 3, the nod here goes to the new guy, Scott Kazmir. He has pitched effectively in Fenway Park over the years, and there’s just something about the guy that makes you feel he’ll be on top of his game when it counts most. He’s an athlete, an old Texas football player, and his stuff – always good – figures to elevate a notch with October adrenaline.

The big question, then, is deciding between Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana for Game 4 in Boston. Both have had quality games there, but Saunders, overall, has been the more effective of the two in Fenway Park.

Saunders gets the call for that reason, and also because Santana has fared well in October relief assignments. He prefers to start, but he’s also smart enough to know he’s in some high-caliber company here, and it’s no insult to be dispatched to the bullpen in favor of a man with Saunders’ tools and attitude.

So, there you have it. Scioscia will not be happy when he sees this – I’m sure I’ve violated some sort of code of ethics in doing this. But it’s something that is on a lot of fans’ minds at the moment, and a guy trying to make a living in hard times has to do what he can to please the customer.

 

 

 

Big night for Evans, Willits, Wilson

In the ninth inning of Thursday night’s 4-3 win in Boston, as significant a victory as the Angels have produced this season in some respects, three September call-ups were on the field in support of Kevin Jepsen and Brian Fuentes – including the man calling the pitches, Bobby Wilson.

Reggie Willits was in left field, where Juan Rivera had opened the game, and Terry Evans was in right, which had been occupied by Gary Matthews Jr.

Willits dropped a perfect bunt to set up the winning run in the top of the ninth, scored by Evans as a pinch-runner, and Evans squeezed the final out.

Wilson blocked a few balls that could have been trouble and once again handled himself with confidence and poise at the most difficult position on the field.

“That’s big for guys like us,” said Evans, a graceful athletic with a lean but muscular frame, “to know they have the confidence to put us out there in a situation like that, a big game on the line. It gives us confidence, as well. It’s huge.”

Evans had another big year at Triple-A Salt Lake alongside Willits and Wilson, as well as Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Freddy Sandoval, Chris Pettit and the rest of the Bees’ formidable lineup. Evans, Wilson and Wood are out of options, meaning they’ll either be with the Angels next season or available to other clubs unless they’re included in deals.

“Anything we can do to contribute, we’re happy,” Evans said. “It can be the smallest thing. For us, that’s our role here. We have such a great lineup, we know what our roles are. And it’s exciting to get a chance to make any kind of contribution.”

Evans and Pettit have been used as pinch-runners late in games, freeing Willits for a role he is beginning to master: dropping a sacrifice bunt in conditions far more difficult than any casual fan would realize.

“It’s something he’s been great at, and it helps if they can hold him back for those spots,” Evans said. “Chris can run, and Freddy can run a little bit too. Reggie can do so many things, he’s a good guy to have around late in games. Plus, with Bobby catching, they can save [Mike] Napoli for pinch-hitting situations.”

Wilson has caught 11 innings this season, his pitchers yielding two earned runs. He made a game-saving, ninth-inning save of a ball in the dirt in Oakland when John Lackey (nine innings) and Fuentes combined for a 1-0 shutout in 10 innings.

Wilson was sent to Salt Lake after that Aug. 4 game, making it a bittersweet day.

“I love it any time I put on the gear and get a chance to play,” Wilson said. “We all want to be in there, and it was great that Terry, Reggie and I were all on the field together.”

“Especially,” a grinning Willits said, his bunt having set up Howard Kendrick’s game-winning single, “when we win.”

Evans had gone in to run for Rivera after his leadoff walk against Red Sox lefty Billy Wagner.

“With more bench strength, especially pinch-running,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “it’s a way to infuse some speed into a situation. The baseball experience of the Major Leagues, cutting their baby teeth, is a big step for these younger players. September is important.”

 

 

Roenicke defends Rivera’s defense

The insiders and media sharks were swirling around Angels left fielder Juan Rivera on Thursday, taking him to task for not diving full-tilt for the pop fly by Alex Gonzalez that dropped in fair territory in shallow left field on Wednesday night at Fenway Park.

Gonzalez’s bases-loaded single gave the Red Sox a controversy-riddled 9-8 win, coming after Nick Green had walked on a full-count, forcing home the tying run, after the Angels felt Brian Fuentes had him struck out twice, on a checked swing and again on a 3-2 fastball at the knees and over the middle of the plate.

Rivera didn’t have much to say about it, other than, “I didn’t think I could catch it.” He went to a few teammates to see what they thought and found support.

Emphatic, unyielding affirmation came from outfield coach Ron Roenicke, manager Mike Scioscia’s bench coach.

“I saw the replay,” said Roenicke, a former Major League outfielder known for his defensive skills. “He’s not going to catch that ball. So he pulled up.

“When you go for a ball and know you can’t catch it in your mind, you pull up. I don’t want them to dive for a ball if they know they can’t get it and get hurt. From what I saw, he wasn’t going to catch it.”

Rivera didn’t appear to be playing as shallow as center fielder Torii Hunter or right fielder Bobby Abreu, but the Green Monster can distort perspectives.

“We’re playing shallow,” Roenicke said. “We were in a little bit.”

Scioscia was asked if he considered removing Rivera – who’d gone 3-for-5 with a two-run double putting the Angels in front in the seventh — for defensive purposes with the Angels leading by a run going into the bottom of the ninth. Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr. would have been options.

“Vlad [Guerrero] was already out of the game [with a bruised rib cage after getting hit by a pitch], and Juan’s swinging the bat well,” Scioscia said. “Juan is comfortable out there.

“He went after it hard. If he thought he could have dived and caught it, he would. Didn’t think he had a chance.”

Rivera has had a solid season defensively in left, making several game-saving catches and unleashing strong, accurate throws with consistency.

Some outfielders, Roenicke said, are less comfortable diving full-tilt.

“Juan plays hard,” Roenicke said. “If he thought he’d have caught it, he’d have come after it. I’ve never seen him prone dive. I’ve seen him slide into a wall for a catch. Torii will dive forward, but there are not many guys who will dive forward.”

Roenicke said Rivera had not asked him about the play but anticipated that he would – and the coach’s support would be forthcoming.

 

 

Angels ‘Four Amigos’ band together

They’re calling themselves “The Four Amigos,” making light of each other with inside digs in the familiar manner of lively, good-natured fraternity brothers.

Lately, Jeff Mathis has been catching most of the flak, some of it self-directed.

“I feel like I’m back in high school, catching seven innings,” Mathis said, grinning.

This is where Bobby Wilson comes in, having arrived as a Sept. 1 reinforcement along with Ryan Budde to provide depth at the catching position behind Mathis and Mike Napoli.

“I’m the middle innings guy,” Wilson said, smiling.

“I’m the closer,” added Napoli. “And he” – pointing to Budde, catcher No. 4 – “is the microwave. He heats everybody up.”

Manager Mike Scioscia loves his catchers, relating to them in ways he can relate to no other players for obvious reasons. He lived the life for many years and knows everything there is to know about it.

Scioscia has been pulling Mathis late in close games for pinch-hitters, largely because his offense hasn’t caught up with his brilliant defense this season.

Outgoing and personable, the fours catchers love this time of year when they’re all together. They spend six weeks in close quarters during Spring Training, and they’re reunited in September.

Napoli, Mathis and Wilson share Florida roots, while Budde is an Oklahoma native.

Napoli has been known to launch big flies, but he might not be as strong as Budde, who kills golf balls and occasionally drives a baseball as far as Napoli.

Wilson, as a hitter, uses the whole field and makes solid contact.

“We’ve got four Major League catchers,” Scioscia said. “These guys can all play at this level.”

Unfortunately, only one can play at a time – even if there are nights when as many as three manage to stay busy, with Budde on call.

If the Angels nail down another AL West title, Wilson could be on the postseason roster, giving Scioscia the option of holding back Napoli for late pinch-hitting duties. With one of the five starters going to the bullpen, a spot could open up for a third receiver if Scioscia wants to go in that direction.

 

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