September 2009

Shoeless Torii relieved

Torii Hunter always knows when he’s in Boston’s glorious old ballpark. His left ankle lets him know.

“Every time I come here,” Hunter said before Tuesday night’s series opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, “my ankle hurts. It remembers this place.”

What his ankle recalls is a terrible accident in the triangle in right center on July 29, 2005. Pursuing a long drive by his former Twins teammate and good buddy David Ortiz, Hunter got his ankle caught in the wall. The ankle was fractured, causing him immense pain and costing him the final two months of the season.

“It was nasty, man, really bad,” Hunter said.

The ugly incident came to his mind on Monday night when the eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove center fielder lost his left shoe trying to stab a drive by the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira – it’s something about former teammates and friends – at Yankee Stadium.

After the game, Hunter jokingly referred to himself as “Shoeless Torii.” But he understood how fortunate he’d been to shed the cleat on impact.

“It’s a good thing the shoe stuck in the padding and came off,” Hunter said. “If it had stayed on, the way my foot hit the wall . . . I don’t even want to think about what might have happened.”

That painful incident remains clear in his head, but it hasn’t all been bad for Hunter in Beantown. He actually has hit extremely well in Fenway Park: .327 for his career with eight homers in 220 at-bats, .361 last season with three homers in 36 at-bats.

Hunter also delivered handsomely in his biggest at-bat of his first season with the Angels. It was his dramatic two-out, two-run single against Justin Masterson in the eighth inning that brought the Angels even in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. Teixeira and Vladimir Guerrero scored on Hunter’s bullet, his third hit in 10 at-bats at Fenway in the series.

The Red Sox rocked the Angels with a run in the bottom of the ninth, claiming a 3-2 triumph that arranged an AL Championship Series showdown with the Rays.

The season over, Hunter found no solace in his own performance, batting .389 for the series to lift his career postseason average to .316 (along with a .510 slugging percentage) in 25 playoff games.

“I really thought we were going all the way,” he said that night, despair everywhere in the ancient clubhouse.

With renewed hope in the air, the Angels are back at Fenway. There’s a strong chance they’ll revisit the yard next month, once again as AL West champions facing the Wild Card Sox in Games 3 and 4, if necessary, of the ALDS.

Hunter, who has arrived as a rare six-tool player this season with his immensely popular blog on MLB.com, can’t wait for the big date, if it’s in the stars.

Here’s a guy who can hit for average, for power, run, field, throw – and write.

“Read all about it,” Hunter said, beaming.

 

Ichiro: completely unique

Ichiro is as hip, stylish and in step with the times as any player in Major League Baseball, even if he doesn’t express it in fluent English.

Before the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium last season, Ichiro willingly gave me a brief taste of hip-hop. I’m no music critic – although I did once review a Bruce Springsteen concert for the late, lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner — but it sounded dead on to me.

“Ichiro is as cool as it gets, man,” Reds manager Dusty Baker had told me. “He’ll bust out some Snoop on you.”

The Mariners’ superstar, alone at his locker in the ancient home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, was just starting to feel it before I was ushered away, deprived of more Ichiro unplugged by pre-game time constraints.

Now here he is, on the verge of reaching 200 hits for the ninth consecutive season, meaning every season he’s played in the Major Leagues of this country. We’re fortunate that it could happen here, at Angel Stadium, because this is a performer to savor, one for the ages.
As contemporary as he is on every level, Ichiro, more than any other current player, takes us back to another time, another century.

If you’re younger than dirt and would be curious to know what Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, greats of those early times, played like, Ichiro is your ticket.

He slaps and dashes. He laces line drives everywhere. He runs as if swept by a quiet storm. He makes difficult plays routine and has a cannon for an arm. I’ll never forget the throw he made his rookie year to erase Oakland’s Terrence Long trying to reach third base on a single. I was thinking, that’s Clemente, Roberto Clemente.

Ichiro has pounded out and beat out his singles on wonderful teams (2001) and dismal ones. He has been as consistent as the weather in the Pacific Northwest. You know it’s going to rain base hits when this guy is on the field.

Ichiro is much like Pete Rose in that way, without the fury. Ichiro is a better hitter than Rose was, with all due respect, and much faster. Defensively, it’s no contest. Ichiro is among the best ever; Pete took his talents to physical limits that never constrained Ichiro. 

If Pete was Charlie Hustle – and he was – Ichiro is Mr. Cool, in any language.

Seattle likely will finish no better than third in the American League West this season, but it led the division in legends with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. The Mariners also own perhaps the game’s most gifted young pitcher in Felix Hernandez, who takes his place right alongside Tim Lincecum.

Griffey has been, in my judgment, the player of his generation. Nobody ever had more fun playing the game than The Kid, and nobody ever was more fun to watch.

Ichiro Suzuki has been simply unique. His value can be measured with statistics that will carry him to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but there’s never been a number that defines style and class packaged in the one dynamic frame.

I’ll settle for No. 51, the one worn by the great Ichiro, a blazing star for several continents and all time.

 

 

 

Scioscia touts Morales as MVP candidate

Kendry Morales, MVP candidate.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia came out firmly in support of his first baseman in the American League’s Most Valuable Player derby,

“Absolutely no doubt,” Scioscia said when asked about Morales’ candidacy. “Look at his individual stats, what he’s meant to his team. [If you] look at what Kendry has meant to his club opposed to what other players have meant to their club, the only guy [in that category] is Joe Mauer in Minnesota.”

Scioscia alluded to Mark Teixeira, the man Morales has replaced at first base for the Angels, as a strong candidate as well. But Teixeira will likely get stiff competition from venerable Derek Jeter for MVP sentiment (and votes) on the East Coast.

As for Morales, batting .314 with 30 homers and 94 RBIs in his first full season as a regular, the campaign is getting a late start.

“It seems word travels from West to East a little slower in the game of baseball,” Scioscia said. “But I think the world of baseball knows what he’s meant to our club.”

With 274 total bases, Morales has 58 more than the next highest Angels hitter, Juan Rivera. Morales’ .598 slugging percentage trails only Mauer’s .615 in the AL, and the Cuban-born switch-hitter also is second in extra-base hits with 68.

While he’s not yet at Teixeira’s level defensively, Morales has improved by leaps and bounds with the glove, playing with visibly higher confidence as the season progresses.

Morales is coming off the best month of his career, making himself a strong candidate for AL Player of the Month for August. He batted .385, leading the league with his .734 slugging percentage and 33 RBIs while trailing only the Rays’ Tony Pena in homers with 10. Pena had 12.

By now, it would seem, pitchers would have found any serious flaws in Morales’ offensive game.

“It’s one thing figuring out what a hitter’s hole is and matching it with the pitcher’s ability to go out and [exploit] it,” Scioscia said. “Kendry’s at the stage where he’s had enough at-bats [502 plate appearances] that pitchers have an idea of his strengths, the things he can do.

“I don’t think there are a lot of secrets with what pitchers are trying to do with Kendry. Good hitters are going to have holes that are very small.”

Scioscia lifted Morales into the No. 5 hole in the order, dropping Rivera one spot, on Tuesday night against right-hander Doug Fister. This prevents righties from seeing three right-handed bats in succession: Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Rivera.

“Kendry is in a good spot to hit behind Vlad and also to break up some of the righties,” Scioscia said. “We’ll tinker with some things. The way Kendry’s swinging, it’s nice to get him behind Vlad against right-handed pitchers.

“If you take Kendry out of our lineup, I think you’re looking at a different offense,” Scioscia said.
 

Sean Rodriguez to Rays

Completing the Scott Kazmir deal, the Angels today sent infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez to the Rays. Tampa Bay previously had acquired left-handed pitching prospect Alex Torres and infielder Matt Sweeney.

Rodriguez, a Miami native, returns to Florida giving new manager Joe Maddon a variety of options. A center fielder in high school, Rodriguez has played primarily at second base for the Angels but showed in a brief opportunity in Minnesota in July that he can handle left field capably as well.

Playing two games at the Metrodome in left, Rodriguez had three hits, including a  booming home run to center, while making several excellent plays.

Rodriguez batted .200 in 25 at-bats with the Angels this season, with two homers and four RBIs. He showed his power at Triple-A Salt Lake this season, batting .299 with 29 homers and 93 RBIs in 103 games. He ranked second in the Pacific Coast League in homers and slugging percentage (.616) and was tied for third in RBIs.

Kazmir is scheduled to make his Angels debut on Wednesday agianst the Mariners in Seattle.

 

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