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
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.
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.
Brandon Wood’s eyes seem to brighten when he looks at the lineup card and sees he’s at shortstop. He put on another show at his natural position on Saturday in Tucson. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed, obscured by the events surrounding John Lackey’s forearm and Mike Napoli’s return behind the plate.
Facing Dan Haren, one of the game’s premier right-handers, in the second inning after Haren had set down the first five men he faced, Wood went with a slider on an 0-1 count and launched it over the wall in right field.
“I hit it on the sweet spot,” Wood said, his fourth Cactus League homer tying him with Jeff Mathis for the club lead. “Any time you can go deep on a guy like that, it feels good.”
But the best was about to come. Arizona catcher Miguel Montero hit a ground ball seemingly headed for left field. Wood got there running full-tilt, leaped and whirled in a motion that Derek Jeter has come to popularize, and gunned down the runner with a strong, accurate throw.
“I like defense,” Wood said when asked which of the two acts — the opposite-field homer or sensational play in the field — was more gratifying. “To get out there at shortstop and make a play, I really enjoy that. Normally, you want to try to plant and set for the throw, but in that case, moving as fast as I was, it probably would have taken four or five steps to get set. So I went in the air and let it fly.”
It was clearly a big-league play by a big-league shortstop. With Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Sean Rodriguez — great athlete, gun of an arm — also at the position, the Angels have an embarrassment of riches.
Wood wasn’t quite done. Later in the game, he appeared to break his bat launching a 340-foot foul drive into the left-field corner. It turns out he’d actually broken the bat on an earlier pitch in the at-bat.
“I hit a line drive on a 2-0 pitch, and that’s when I broke it,” Wood said. “When I hit the ball down the line, it didn’t travel as far as I thought it would. I looked at the bat, and the handle was cracked.”
Solid glove, strong arm, awesome power. Nice tool kit Brandon is carrying around.
The Angels are back at full strength. Scot Shields has returned to his familiar spot in the bullpen, having returned from the World Baseball Classic to enrich teammates with inside stories about the event.
“The experience was great,” Shields said. “I just wish we could have played one more game.”
Team USA was ousted in the semifinals at Dodger Stadium on Sunday by Japan, which went on to successfully defend its title from the 2006 inaugural event with a thrilling victory over Korea on Monday night.
“Japan’s got a pretty good team,” Shields said, agreeing that its aggressive, old-school style is similar to that of the Angels. “They’ve got good hitters all through their lineup, and three starting pitchers who are excellent. They’ve got speed, they get guys over, they play defense.
“I’m disappointed in how it ended, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Getting to know a whole new team, just about was great. The only guys back from the first one were Chipper [Jones] before he had to leave, [Derek] Jeter and Jake [Peavy].”
The highlight was the dramatic, come-from-behind, 6-5 triumph over Puerto Rico in the second round in Miami that clinched a semifinal berth for Team USA.
“That was one of the best games I’ve ever been involved in,” said Shields, who produced four outs of perfect relief to keep Puerto Rico at bay. “The guys had been together for like a week and a half and were celebrating like we knew each other all year.
“That showed how important it was for us to win.”
Shields has heard and read the criticism of Team USA, that it didn’t care as much about the event as other countries, notably the two finalists.
“We all take pride in having those letters across our chest,” he said. “We really wanted to win. Japan just beat us, that’s all.”
Shields appeared in five of the team’s eight games, yielding two earned runs on seven hits and a walk in 4 1/3 innings, striking out two men.
“I got my work in,” Shields said. “I’m feeling good. I’m ready to go.”