In the afterglow of a 3-1 triumph and three-game weekend sweep of the Blue Jays . . .
With two outs in the sixth, Erick Aybar still on second after a leadoff double, Hideki Matsui unloads on a Ricky Romero fastball and sends it rocketing one-hop off the center-field wall to snap a scoreless deadlock for Ervin Santana. Before the game, manager Mike Scioscia talked in some detail about how Japanese hitters spend hour after hour trying to gain a perfect balance at home plate. At times it appears Matsui is leaning back as he takes his swing, falling away, but he manages to keep his bat in the hitting zone and drive the ball. He did it again in the ninth, igniting what proved to be an important two-run rally. This is an amazing hitter, a man who thrives under pressure.
These sparse, disinterested Blue Jays crowds. I know it’s Stanley Cup time, and it’s cold, and the Jays haven’t been good for a long while, and they traded Roy Halladay. But this is not good. I’ve always defended Canadian baseball fans, and I truly miss Montreal, one of the world’s great cities. But the Jays aren’t that bad. These “Lyle” chants, zeroing in on the slumping first baseman, are not worthy of such an urbane city. The Jays drew for these three Angels dates what they once attracted for an average regular-season game. Sad.
Ervin Santana, when he’s on his game, is a tremendous pitcher. He was dealing with supreme confidence from the outset Sunday. Trouble surfaced twice in the early going, and both times he reached back and made quality pitches, leaving runners in scoring position. His fastball was sitting in the 91-93 mph range – not quite where it will be when he gets in a warm-weather groove – and his slider and changeup were dancing. He thought his change was his best pitch, and he should know. If he maintains his rhythm, flow and confidence, the Angels could have a rotation full of All-Star candidates after a rough first two spins through the cycle. – Lyle Spencer
TORONTO – While watching Joe Saunders duel fellow lefty Brian Tallent on a very cold Saturday in Canada . .
Howard Kendrick, in the No. 2 hole for the first time this season, powers the eighth pitch of the day by lefty Brian Tallet into the seats in left center for a 2-0 lead following Erick Aybar’s five-pitch walk. Kendrick used to hit behind Aybar in the Minors and will be a dream No. 2 hitter with experience. He drives the ball almost as hard to the opposite-field as one of his role models, Derek Jeter, who always offers encouragement when they share the same field — as they did for three days at Yankee Stadium.
Brandon Wood, a terrific young athlete trying maybe a little too desperately to find his way, finally takes his offensive struggles to the field with errors on consecutive plays. He misplays a hop on the carpet, creating one unearned run, then bounces a throw past first baseman Kendry Moralels for another unearned run. These are mistakes Wood does not make when he’s feeling in tune with the planet, but that isn’t the case at the moment.
There’s something terribly unsettling about Rogers Centre these days. It’s like watching a horror film alone in an empty theatre on a dark afternoon – and hearing lonely voices screaming and hollering “Lyle!” in the distant reaches. They’re all over that other Lyle, Overbay, for his terrible start, and it can’t be doing the Blue Jays first baseman any good. I know it isn’t doing much for me.
“O Canada,” the civilized world’s most beautiful anthem, sung by anyone with a decent voice. I used to get chills coming to the old Montreal Forum and hearing the legendary Roger Doucet do his tenor version before Canadiens games. There was something majestic about that voice and that song, unlike anything I’ve heard since. — Lyle Spencer
In the afterglow of the Angels’ 7-5 decision over the Blue Jays in the wonderfully flavorful international city of Toronto . . .
The offense comes alive with lightning (steals by Jeff Mathis, Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter), thunder (towering homer to right-center by Kendry Morales) and artistic merit (opposite-field, two-out RBI strokes by Abreu and Hunter back-to-back; two-out run-producing hits by Juan Rivera and Maicer Izturis that proved decisive). These are the Angels you came to know and love last summer. Let’s see if it lasts a while.
Two pitches in bad places, a fastball by Jered Weaver up in Vernon Wells’ wheelhouse leading off the second inning, and a curve by reliever Jason Bulger that Adam Lind lost in the right-field bleachers in the eighth.
Artificial turf. Yes, it’s functional, in a twisted sort of way, and it’s nice that they can shut the roof and play when it’s stormy and freezing outside. But I’m sorry, I never could stand the stuff, from the moment I first saw it at the Astrodome so many years ago, and I still can’t take the fake grass after all these years. It’s sinful what it did to Andre Dawson and Eric Davis, to name two of many.
Everything Weaver did through besides unleashing two fastballs in the wrong places to Wells and Randy Ruiz in the eighth. The big kid who used to follow John Lackey around is becoming The Man before our very eyes, with the look, stuff and attitude of an ace. It’s a beautiful thing indeed if you’re an Angels fan.
A strong contender was Mathis’ athletic play in pouncing on a ball that skipped away from the batter’s box and erasing Lind trying to move up to third in the seventh inning. Very few catchers make that play. Mathis is an elite class defensively, and his eight-game hitting streak is starting to suggest that his postseason offensive eruption was no fluke. — Lyle Spencer
The Angels have placed closer Brian Fuentes on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 6, making him eligible to return on April 21.
Fuentes said he tweaked a muscle mid-back on the left side on April 6 after making a save in the season opener the day before. He has not pitched since but feels he is mending and threw again, playing catch, for the first time on Tuesday and again before Wednesday’s game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
Fernando Rodney, Scot Shields and Kevin Jepsen are expected to share ninth-inning duties until Fuentes returns. Rodney was 37 for 38 in save opportunities for Detroit last season and likely will get first call, manager Mike Scioscia said.
“I was lifting weights — I just picked up a dumbbell, and it was a freak thing,” Fuentes said. “I didn’t have a lot of weights. I saw a chiropractor, and he said he didn’t believe anything was structurally wrong. It’s a tissue issue. With the rehab we’ve done, it seems to be getting better.”
The Angels recalled outfielder Reggie Willits from Class A Rancho Cucamonga, where he was rehabbing a strained hamstring, and reliever Francisco Rodriguez from Triple-A Salt Lake while reliever Bobby Cassevah was returned to Salt Lake.
Another move will be required on Thursday when Scott Kazmir is activated to start the series finale against the Yankees. Kazmir pitched a rehab game at Rancho Cucamonga on Friday after experiencing left shoulder tightness on March 25 and missing a turn in the rotation.– Lyle Spencer
ANAHEIM – Like Chone Figgins, his former partner on the left side of the Angels’ infield, Erick Aybar is practicing what Bobby Abreu preaches.
Patience and the confidence to hit with two strikes are essential ingredients, Abreu maintains, in the makeup of any quality hitter – especially one who leads off for his team.
“A five-pitch at-bat is great,” Abreu said. “If a leadoff man is doing that, he’s doing the job. A 10-pitch at-bat? Wow. That’s twice as good.”
Abreu was in the on-deck circle Monday night at Angel Stadium when Aybar set a tone in the season opener with his 10-pitch walk against Twins starter Scott Baker.
By the time the inning was over, Aybar and Torii Hunter had scored on singles by Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera, and the Angels’ offense was rolling again. The thunder would come a little later from Jeff Mathis, Hideki Matsui and Kendry Morales, but it was the new generator, Aybar, who put it all in motion.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons here,” said Abreu, a quiet 0-for-4 in the opener. “Aybar has come a long way. He’s getting there.
“I give him credit for an outstanding job last night. He had good at-bats all night, working counts every at-bat. As he gets more confidence, he’s going to be more dangerous.”
Aybar singled twice in three official at-bats, seeing a total of 24 pitches and scoring two of the Angels’ runs in a 6-3 decision.
“I’ve learned a lot from watching Bobby and Figgins both, the way they hit,” Aybar said. “They’re very patient in working counts, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
“I’m more patient than last year. I’m staying back and seeing the ball well. It’s important to stay confident even if they get two strikes on you. They still have to throw the ball over the plate.”
Aybar led the Angels and tied for eighth in the American League last year with his .312 batting average. The electric shortstop had a .353 on-base percentage.
Figgins’ .395 on-base percentage in his final season with the Angels might appear out of Aybar’s reach, but keep in mind the 26-year-old Dominican Republic athlete did elevate his OBP 39 points from 2008 to ’09. If he does that again, he’ll be at .392.
After recovering from a right elbow sprain, Aybar burned up the Cactus League, hitting .571 in his final 28 at-bats. He finished the ’09 season scalding-hot, hitting .337 in his final 72 games, with 27 multi-hit games.
A switch-hitter with blinding speed, Aybar primarily batted eighth and ninth last season. In his 35 starts as the No. 2 hitter, between Figgins and Abreu, the Angels were 26-9. They won his only start as the leadoff man, a role Figgins occupied 158 times.
“We saw some things in Erick’s game this spring that were impressive,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “To get your leadoff guy seeing 24 pitches, which he did last night, that’s a big part of what a guy who sets the table wants to do.
“One game doesn’t make a season, but what we saw from Erick was very encouraging.”
Aybar’s big-brother figure, Abreu, is watching . . . from the on-deck circle. – Lyle Spencer
TEMPE, Ariz. — After missing a rotation turn banging his elbow against a couch, inflaming the bursa sac, Angels right-hander Ervin Santana made up for lost time on Sunday.
Throwing 84 pitches and giving himself a stamp of approval, Santana put himself on track for a start against the Twins in the third game of the season at Angel Stadium. He expects to reach 100 pitches or thereabouts in his final spring tuneup on Friday against the Dodgers in Anaheim.
“I felt good — very good stuff today,” Santana said. “Good changeup, sliders, a lot of strikes. That’s the most important thing. My velocity was very good.
“One more, and then I’m ready for the season. Right on time.”
The Angels didn’t do much right in a 15-5 pounding by the Tribe, but something to feel good about surfaced in the angular form of Santana.
He lasted 4 2/3 numbers, and the raw numbers – six hits, two walks, five earned runs – were deceiving. He was in command through three scoreless innings, and if not for a few hits finding holes and the sun blinding center fielder Torii Hunter on a lazy fly ball, he’d have escaped with a better bottom line.
“Better it happens now than in the season,” Santana said, grinning.
He felt his slider, thrown at different speeds, was especially effective combined with his lively fastball and changeup.
Manager Mike Scioscia saw nothing but encouraging signs from his 2008 All-Star right-hander.
“Ervin actually threw the ball very well,” Scioscia said. “I was excited to see the ball coming out hot like that. It matches what he had earlier in the spring. He’ll be ready to go. That was a great outing for him.”
After Santana struck out the last man he faced, Shin-soo Choo, reliever Jon Bachanov yielded a double that cashed in a pair of Santana’s runners. Matt LaPorta followed with a homer, and the Tribe was rolling.
“I feel strong,” Santana said. “I just missed a start because I hit my elbow on a couch. It happens to everybody.”
The Angels are hoping he’ll be careful sliding into couches from April through October.
Santana missed the first five weeks of the 2009 season with forearm tightness and never really found a consistent groove. His fastball was down 3-4 mph, in the low 90s. At his best, it comes in at 94-97 — red-hot out of his hand.
“Last year he never really had his good fastball,” Scioscia said. “He was a little banged up in Spring Training. He’s moved forward. The ball’s coming out of his hand hot. You saw his stuff today.”
In his first two Cactus League starts, Santana didn’t allow a run and gave up only two hits in five innings, striking out five without a walk. He pitched in a camp game before the incident with the couch.
Fernando Rodney, the new setup man, had his worst outing of the spring. The hard-throwing right-hander walked three of the five men he faced and yielded four earned runs, earning his only out with a leadoff strikeout before losing command.
“He was just yanking it, pulling it out of the zone,” Scioscia said. “He’s fine.”
Howard Kendrick slammed a two-run double in the fourth and Brandon Wood drilled a pair of hits, driving in a run for the Angels. But the offensive highlight of the day was provided by leadoff man Erick Aybar when he scored all the way from first in the third inning on Hunter’s single to right center. Aybar, who walked and singled, has reached safely in 10 of his past 15 plate appearances.
“Erick, we’ve talked about his speed,” Scioscia said. “He ran through all the bases hard. That’s part of the package Erick brings. He’s had a nice week in the leadoff position and did the job today.” — Lyle Spencer
Angels infielder Maicer Izturis was feeling “much better, no problem” on Sunday after experiencing mid-back stiffness on Saturday swinging the bat and leaving the game against the Giants in the third inning. He is expected to play against the White Sox on Monday night in a split-squad game in Goodyear.
Scott Kazmir reported no stiffness – “all good, ready to go” – after unleashing a full-tilt power bullpen on Saturday. “I threw everything, including some good sliders,” he said of his 60-pitch session. “I’m feeling pretty good about my slider.” Kazmir will unload 75-80 pitches on Tuesday against the Brewers in Tempe and expects to be ready to take his turn first time around the rotation opening week.
Setup man Scot Shields, working consecutive games on Friday and Saturday to gauge his stamina, came away from his scoreless inning against the Giants with no ill effects. He said he is no longer thinking about his left, landing knee, subjected to arthroscopic surgery last June. “I’m good, ready to go,” said Shields, who is scheduled to pitch on Monday at home against the Royals.
Reggie Willits, limited to batting practice with a right hamstring strain, plans to run the bases “later in the day” on Sunday. “His next test,” manager Mike Scioscia said, “will be in the outfield, to see if he’s ready to play.” Willits is the club’s best option in center field behind Torii Hunter but might have to open the season at Triple-A Salt Lake. Unlike Terry Evans, Willits has Minor League options left.
Ervin Santana starts on Sunday for the first time since banging his right elbow against furniture in his residence here 10 days ago and sustaining a bruised bursa sac. Santana is in the 75- to 80-pitch range and hopes to be ready to take his turn, which comes up third in the season’s opening week behind Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders.
Reliever Jason Bulger, having a superb spring, pitched in a camp game on Saturday, his first back-to-back sessions. He looks ready to roll. – Lyle Spencer
TEMPE, Ariz. — Angels infielder Maicer Izturis left Saturday’s game against the Giants at Tempe Diablo Stadium with stiffness in his back during his only at-bat, grounding into a double play in the second inning.
“He felt a little stiffness in his back, mid-back, on one of his swings,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said following a 4-3 victory. “He’s fine. It was a precaution. I don’t think it’s going to be more than a couple days. He might feel good tomorrow. He might be ready when we have our split-squad [games on Monday].”
Izturis, who signed a three-year, $10 million deal this winter, is having a strong spring, hitting .351 in 37 at-bats. He provides quality support at third base, shortstop and second base, where he was stationed on Saturday with Howard Kendrick getting a day off.
Angels starter Joe Saunders “felt good, real good” about his 4 1/3 innings, yielding three earned runs on seven hits and three walks. He struck out six men, including three in a row after loading the bases with singles in the fourth.
“When the heat’s on like that,” Saunders said, “you can treat it like a Spring Training game or say, `Hey, let’s get out of this and minimize damage.’ I tried to get ahead of guys and threw a little bit of everything.
“In the fifth, I fell behind a couple guys and threw a two-seamer to [Bengie] Molina. He got extended and dropped the barrel on it. I fell behind 1-0 and had to come with a strike. He’s a good hitter.”
Molina rocketed a three-run double after two walks and a single to give the Giants the lead, but the Angels rallied for two in the sixth against Barry Zito. Erick Aybar, who has reached base safely eight of his past 12 plate appearances, walked and scored on Torii Hunter’s double, Hunter scoring on Hideki Matsui’s RBI single. Aybar had singled in front of Bobby Abreu’s homer in the third to right center, Abreu’s second of the spring.
Scioscia liked the offensive continuity and Saunders’ work – until he lost command in the fifth. The lefty went to the bullpen to finish his work.
There were several positive developments with the pitching staff. Scott Kazmir, saying he was “completely over” left shoulder stiffness that took him out of his most recent start, threw a 60-pitch power bullpen and is set to go on Tuesday against the Brewers in Tempe.
The bullpen excelled after Saunders’ departure, starting with young right-hander Bobby Cassevah. He induced a double-play grounder to end the fifth and worked a perfect sixth. Kevin Jepsen, Scot Shields (working his second day in a row) and Fernando Rodney each delivered scoreless innings, Rodney closing it out by striking out two of the three men he faced in the ninth. – Lyle Spencer
Decision day is fast approaching. Catcher Bobby Wilson and outfielder Terry Evans are out of Minor League options and can’t be returned to Triple-A Salt Lake without the risk of losing them through waivers. Both almost certainly would be claimed.
Evans is competing with Robb Quinlan, Reggie Willits, Michael Ryan and Cory Aldridge for a backup outfield role. Quinlan can play four positions and is the most experienced of the group. Willits, held back by a hamstring strain, can be sent to Salt Lake, but he’s the only proven center fielder. Ryan has the advantage of being able to play the corner infield spots. Aldridge has scalded the ball all spring. Evans can drive the ball and play all three outfield spots.
It becomes a matter of choice, and it figures to come down to the final days of Spring Training after the club breaks camp and heads west.
The Wilson situation is far more complicated. The Angels have to decide if they can keep a third catcher in support of Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis. If they can’t, Wilson will have to be dealt or lost.
Just the other day, manager Mike Scioscia liberally praised the 26-year-old Wilson, a Seminole (Fla.) High School teammate of former Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman who has spent seven years honing his skills in the farm system.
“Willie from the defensive end is a terrific catcher,” Scioscia said. “He’s got terrific, is a great receiver and throws well. From the offensive end, he’s going to be a good situational hitter. He’s going to be a good offensive player in the Major Leagues.
“Obviously, we have some decisions to make. He’s a player that is in our discussions as to what role he’ll have with us. He’s a good player who’s going to be able to catch every day in the Major Leagues when he has the opportunity.”
Wilson is hitting .316 in Cactus League play with a .435 on-base percentage. He skillfully managed 20-year-old Trevor Reckling through four scoreless innings against the Giants on Friday in his second spring start.
“I feel like I’ve gone out and played hard, gone after it, done everything I can to stick,” Wilson said. “I’m still trying to prove to the staff here that I am able to play, and I feel like I’ve done everything they’ve asked me to do. I’ve paid attention to the little details of everything that’s gone on.
“The one knock on me when I came up was, `Yeah, he can hit, but he’s an average catcher.’ To be voted best defensive catcher in the Pacific Coast League last year by the managers, that shows me I came in and did the job. I can block [pitches and the plate], I can throw, call a game, handle a pitching staff. I feel like I’m well-rounded.
“I pride myself on putting up zeros. Catching Trevor, 20 years old and facing Tim Lincecum, that wasa great experience for both of us. He did it with just his fastball and slider first time through the lineup, then we went to his changeup, one of his best pitches. He was in and out, back and forth, with a good tempo. That’s the one thing I pride myself in, that pitcher-catcher relationship.”
Carrying three catchers has benefits. It would give Scioscia flexibility with Napoli as a pinch-hitter and occasional designated hitter, while providing support in the event of injury to either of the main receivers.
Crucial to the makeup of the 25-man roster is the pitching staff, whether Scioscia decides to carry 11 or 12 arms. Brian Stokes’ ability to go multiple innings – he’s done it three times this spring – could swing it toward 11 pitchers . . . and one more roster spot for a position player.
Decision day draws near. – Lyle Spencer
The Angels have Jered Weaver pitching six innings in a camp game against the Athletics today to get him in a more controlled environment. He can continue to work on his two-seam fastball and cutter while bringing his pitch count up into the 90 range.
Taking Weaver’s place in Scottsdale against reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum is Trevor Reckling, the Angels’ 20-year-old lefty from New Jersey. Reckling has impressed with his poise and command as well as his premium stuff.
“He has the whole package,” catcher Bobby Wilson said. “It’s just a matter of getting command of everything. He’s very confident in his fastball, breaking ball and change and can throw them in any count.”
With Scott Kazmir rebounding from shoulder tightness and Ervin Santana set to test his bruised right bursa sac (funny bone) on Sunday, the Angels are hoping to have all five starters ready to go in the opening week.
If any of the five is set back, Matt Palmer gets first call, followed by Sean O’Sullivan. But Reckling isn’t far removed from contention. He showed his poise in pitching out of trouble in the first against the Giants, getting ground-ball outs from Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff to leave Aaron Rowand stranded at third with one out after his leadoff double.