High bar for Aybar

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

 

 

Santana `right on time’

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

 

Izturis’ quick recovery

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

Back stiffness grounds Izturis

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

 

 

Can Angels carry three catchers?

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 

Weaver in camp game

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.

Matsui gets a look in left

GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch against the Dodgers, the Angels’ Hideki Matsui gets his first start in the outfield today since June 15, 2008 when he plays left and bats fourth.

Hindered by knee problems, Matsui did not play at all in the outfield for the Yankees last season, limiting him to designated-hitter duties only. He took full advantage of his three DH appearances in the World Series to claim the Series MVP award for his bashing of the Phillies for the Bronx Bombers.

“He could play in Fenway Park or anywhere,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said when asked why he chose to play Matsui in the outfield in an unfamiliar park. “He needs to get his prep steps, how he feels during games and – even more important – the next day.

“If you’re going to play a full game, you’re talking about 150 prep steps if the pitchers throw 150 pitches. Not that he’s going to play a full game – I imagine it’ll be somewhere around four innings.”

Matsui has been making gradual progress in outfield drills, strengthening his knees while reacquainting himself with the terrain.

“There’s a team element in defense that needs to get pushed forward,” Scioscia said, alluding to the coordination Matsui and center fielder Torii Hunter need to develop. “With Matsui, it’s understanding range with Torii, where he needs to go. It’ll just take a little time for Hideki to get their range down.”

Signed to a one-year, $6 million free agent deal, Matsui expressed a desire to be given a chance to return to the outfield at least on a part-time basis.

The Angels’ plan is to give him a few starts in left a week, if possible, to provide DH opportunities for the other outfielders: Hunter, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, along with Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli on occasion.

After missing a week and a half with a strain in his right elbow, shortstop Erick Aybar returned to the lineup on Monday against the Dodgers, leading off.

Scioscia said he did not play Brandon Wood on Sunday against the Mariners at home because he wanted his third baseman to sharpen his coordination with Aybar in a camp game.

“Left side defense is as important as anything you’re going to do,” Scioscia said. “The third baseman has to cover the hole. With Wood and Aybar, we worked on it yesterday. We also had Morales and [Howard] Kendrick on the right side stay back one day to work on it.”

This is the closest Scioscia has come to having his projected lineup together. Jeff Mathis was a last-minute insertion as DH when the Dodgers – using a split squad with a second game against the Brewers — notified the Angels they were freeing up the DH role.

With Matsui in left and Mathis occupying the DH spot, Juan Rivera was the only name missing from the lineup that is expected to be on the field when the Angels open the season on April 5 at home against Minnesota.

Freeing up the DH allowed Scioscia to switch back to Joe Saunders as his starter after deciding he’d go with Matt Palmer under National League rules.
 
Following Aybar in the lineup are right fielder Abreu, center fielder Hunter, Matsui, Morales, Kendrick, Napoli at catcher, Wood and Mathis.

They’ll be facing right-hander Carlos Monasterios, a Rule 5 pickup bidding to nail down the fifth spot in the Dodgers’ rotation. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is pitching in Phoenix against the Brewers. - Lyle Spencer

 

 

Ichiro vs. Matsui: major news in Japan

TEMPE – One of my new friends in the Japanese media, Taro Abe of Tokyo Chunichi Sports, had his game face on early Sunday morning.

“Big day today,” Taro told me. “Ichiro is coming with the Mariners. Ichiro and Matsui.”

Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the two biggest names in the biggest sport in their homeland. It is not an exaggeration to refer to them as the Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson of Japan — or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to be more current.

They are as different off the field as on, Matsui down-to-earth and easy-going, Ichiro edging toward flamboyant — and less accessible. Seven or eight Japanese media members accompany Ichiro, while the Matsui following runs from 15 to 40 or so, depending on the day and the storyline.

“We’ll have a lot of Japanese media here today,” Taro said, grinning.

This is the first meeting between the new American League West rivals, Ichiro in right field and leading off, Matsui batting fourth as the Angels’ designated hitter.

The matchup lost some of its appeal when projected Seattle starter Cliff Lee was forced to withdraw with a lower abdomen strain, taking some heat off a potential confrontation in the desert sun with Jered Weaver. Another lefty, Luke French, replaces Lee.

This game doesn’t count in any significant way, shape or form, but it will be covered with passion and feeling in Japan, where every movement by Ichiro and Hideki is a photo opportunity.

Asked on a fairly daily basis when Matsui will take a glove to left field, manager Mike Scioscia offered a creative new response Sunday.

“We’re down to hours,” he said, pausing with the timing of Jack Benny for effect. “Of course, it might be 316 hours, something like that.”

Matsui batted five times in a camp game Saturday against the Giants and was 0-for-2 with three walks. He is still searching for his power stroke, hitting a lot of ground balls while going 2-for-18 in Cactus League play. The lift will come when his balance and timing are at optimum levels.

Ichiro is doing what Ichiro does, hitting .250 in nine games with four steals. The new man behind him in the Seattle lineup, former Angels leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins, is off to a sluggish start, hitting .130. Behind Figgins, No. 3 in the order Sunday, is another former Angel, first baseman Casey Kotchman.

When the opening bell rings and the games matter, Ichiro and Figgins will form one of the game’s most dynamic 1-2 tandems, bringing new flavor to a newly shaped rivalry along with the Matsui-Ichiro duel.

The Angels haven’t lost a season series to Seattle since 2003 and have won four in a row. They’ll face the Mariners 19 times this season, and each one will have a great deal of meaning in a distant land.

One thing is certain: Japan’s media won’t miss a thing. The first of those 19 meetings, on May 7 in Seattle, is circled on a lot of calendars. They won’t get together in Anaheim until May 28 for a fthree-game series. The pot should be boiling by then. – Lyle Spencer

 

Familiar tune for Napoli, Mathis

Cue up the Four Tops. “It’s the Same Old Song” with respect to the Angels’ catching situation.

Mike Napoli is hitting up a storm this spring and trying to work through some throwing issues. Jeff Mathis is catching and throwing superbly but struggling to find base hits.

Manager Mike Scioscia used familiar language on Friday morning when he was asked about his catchers and – specifically — if a spot on the 25-man roster can be carved out for third receiver Bobby Wilson, who is out of Minor League options.

“It’s the same as the last couple years,” Scioscia said. “It’s worked out that it’s been a split. I know those guys [Napoli and Mathis] have the ability to go out and catch 130 games each. Why they haven’t done it is because there have been some rough spots on the offensive or defensive end.”

He didn’t have to spell out which receiver had which flaws. It has been there for everyone to see.

Napoli came into camp feeling healthier than at any time in the past three years, and it has shown with his exceptional ability to crush balls and draw walks. If he ever gets enough at-bats, he’s capable of putting up huge power-production numbers, in the 30/100 range, with a .360 to .380 on-base percentage and .500-plus slugging mark.

Not many receivers can do that. The question is whether his defense will allow Napoli enough plate appearances to stay locked in, given that Scioscia continues to value defense first and Mathis clearly is the better catcher in every respect.

Mathis has been throwing lasers this spring, while Napoli has been unloading some changeups. Scioscia has seen improvement in recent days with Napoli.

“It’s definitely mechanics,” Scioscia said, identifying the source of Napoli’s throwing issues. “It’s related to moving forward, with a rhythm.”

Basically, to paraphrase another old catcher named Yogi Berra, Napoli is finding that you can’t think and throw at the same time. He’s trying to conceptualize his mechanics rather than just cutting it loose confidently.

“When he’s on, he’s a plus thrower,” Scioscia said. “When Jeff’s on, he’s plus-plus. Jeff has been throwing as well as he ever has.”
From glove to glove, as Scioscia puts it, Mathis can get the ball to second base on a steal attempt in 1.9 seconds. Napoli is in the 1.95 to 2.05 range.

“With a 1.9, glove to glove, not many guys are going to beat it,” Scioscia said.

Scioscia said he wants to keep Wilson, but it’s hard to see how that can happen unless the club carries 11 pitchers on Opening Day and has one of the three catchers available as a backup at first base for Kendry Morales.

Wilson has played some first base and so has Napoli, but that was in the Minor Leagues.

“Nap is focused on being in our catching depth,” Scioscia said. “Bobby has played some first base. It would be an easy switch for him. Ryan Budde’s also played some first base.

“They’re still going through that pitcher-catcher relationship of trying to work with everybody on the staff.”
If the Angels can’t find room for Wilson, he’ll have to be dealt in order to avoid losing him to waivers. The same applies to power-hitting outfielder Terry Evans, also out of Minor League options.

“You don’t want to lose players, obviously,” Scioscia said. “Those two guys we’re talking about, Wilson and Evans, are Major League players, no question about it.”

The question is whether they’ll be Angels, and that likely won’t be answered until the last few days of Spring Training. — Lyle Spencer

 

     

Baker defends Hunter

Reds manager Dusty Baker was a member of the panel that recently discussed the status of African American players in baseball, and he was taken aback by quotes attributed to Angels center fielder Torii Hunter in a national publication.

“I must have left before any of that,” Baker said. “I didn’t hear it at all. I know Torii was probably trying to make light of the situation – and that’s not Torii Hunter, how it came out in print.

“He’s one of the most respected players around the game by everyone in the game. All I know is that whatever way it came out, I refuse to believe Torii believes that. He’s a unifier. He’s always treated everybody the same, with respect. That’s one of the reasons why he has such a great reputation in the game, along with the way he competes.”

Hunter was stunned and hurt by how the story portrayed his perception of the racial balance in the game. He said he was merely trying to point out that “black kids from America are different from kids growing up in Latin America, with different cultures, but we all share a love of the game.

“I’ve spent my whole career trying to get young kids involved in this great game,” Hunter said, “and that’s not going to change. It’s hurtful when something like this causes perceptions that are not accurate.”

>>>>>>Kazmir ready to go

Snuffed by the Reds, 6-0, on three hits on Wednesday, the Angels got some good news on the pitching front. Southpaw Scott Kazmir, whose spring started slowly with residual pain from a right hamstring strain, made it through 31 pitches in a camp game and is set to go in the rotation. His turn comes up on Monday when the Dodgers visit Tempe Diablo Stadium.

“He looked great,” Scioscia said. “It was a really good workout for him.”

 

 

 

 

 

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