As he was packing his bag at Yankee Stadium late Sunday night, a long season over, Gary Matthews Jr. looked up and said, “It’s time.”
It was not the first time he’d said this, and his meaning was clear. It’s time, in Matthews’ mind, to move on. Time to find a place where he can play center field every day and take full advantage of his multiple skills at age 35.
Tired of being a fifth wheel in the Angels’ outfield, Matthews desperately wants to wear a new uniform with two years remaining on a five-year deal that brought him $50 million after his 2006 All-Star season in Texas.
He thinks there are teams that can see what he has to offer, and he hopes something can be done to make it happen. The $23 million owed him complicates the situation, but there are possible fits with clubs that have high-priced contracts they could move in exchange for a versatile switch-hitter who can play high-caliber center field.
Matthews had one superb half in ’07, leading off and batting cleanup and making all the plays in center, before a knee injury set him back and forced him to end his season in civvies while the Angels were getting swept by Boston in the ALDS.
They went out and acquired Torii Hunter that winter, a move not even Matthews could criticize. A smart baseball guy, having grown up in the game with a slugging father, Gary Sr., he understands Hunter’s tremendous value on and off the field. It just happened that Torii is one of the elite players in the game at Matthews’ natural position.
Life as a backup role player has been unfulfilling for the son of Sarge.
Matthews had a nice little run this season when Hunter was sidelined for a month with a groin injury sustained banging into outfield walls. During that time, Matthews was renewed, emotionally and physically, and it showed in his performance.
Carrying the momentum of a strong June finish, the Angels were 17-9 in July with Hunter missing all but seven games. During one memorable stretch with Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero both sidelined, the Angels were 17-3.
The Angels were 32-13 with Matthews starting in center field, and he batted a robust .358 with runners in scoring position, when his competitive juices were flowing.
Those numbers might be a more accurate reflection of what he can do than his pedestrian .250 batting average, .361 slugging and .336 on-base numbers for the full season, with an irregular work load.
It took him a while to find his stroke after Hunter went on the shelf, but once he did, Matthews carried it to the finish with strong performances in August (.290 average, .452 slugging, .389 on-base percentage) and September/October (.286/.457/.444, respectively).
His play in center field is far superior to what he does in left and right, where he struggles at times with the hooks, slices and angles. In center, Matthews ranks among the top third in the game in the studied view of Hunter, the master.
Teams with needs in center should seriously explore taking on a player who has plenty of game left and a hunger to show what he can do.
This certainly isn’t anywhere near the top of the Angels’ winter agenda, with seven free agent cases to weigh along with eight arbitration-eligible players to satisfy. But at some point, dealing with Matthews – and dealing him in a mutually satisfying manner – would seem to be the right thing to do.
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.
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.”
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.
Torii Hunter, gradually regaining strength in the area of his right adductor muscle, was not in the Angels’ lineup for Thursday night’s series finale against the Indians at Progressive Field, with Gary Matthews Jr. in center field.
Hunter also will take a day off in Toronto, where the Angels engage the Blue Jays in a three-game weekend series on the artificial surface at the Rogers Centre. Look for Hunter to be back in the No. 3 spot in the order in Toronto, between Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero.
“I’m good,” Hunter said, on his way to take batting practice in the inside cages. “They’re being careful with me, and even though I never want to come out, I understand.”
While the eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove winner rested, manager Mike Scioscia was joining the campaign for Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar, promoting the Gold Glove candidacies of his left-side infielders. Figgins at third and Aybar at shortstop have been brilliant and steady all season.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Scioscia said of Figgins’ worthiness of Gold Glove consideration. “There’s not a third baseman in our league playing at a higher level.”
Asked if the same view applied to Aybar, Scioscia nodded.
“Erick makes very tough plays look manageable, routine, with his arm strength,” Scioscia said. “There’s no shortstop who makes the 4-6 double play turn better than Erick, nobody.”
Scioscia had to reach deep in his memory bank to find names when he was asked if anybody else could have made the play Aybar delivered in Baltimore, robbing fleet Brian Roberts of a hit from deep in the hole with a leaping bullet to first.
Ozzie Smith, Garry Templeton and Shawon Dunston were shortstops of the past who crossed Scioscia’s mind as having the arm strength and athleticism to make a play like that . . . but “nobody” in today’s game.
Figgins, drafted as a shortstop by Colorado, has started at six positions in the Majors, finally settling in at third base in 2007 on a full-time basis.
“It feels good to get some recognition for what I’m doing defensively,” Figgins said. “It took a while before I really thought of myself as a third baseman, but that’s what I am now. I’d be flattered to be considered for that [Gold Glove]. Growing up, my man was Ozzie [Smith], and I’d love to get one.”
The Wizard of Oz won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves for the Cardinals. The two-time reigning Gold Glove third baseman in the American League, Seattle’s Adrian Beltre, has missed 39 games this season.
Aybar’s model at shortstop as a kid was the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal, the player he most resembles. Michael Young, last year’s Gold Glove shortstop in the AL, was moved to third base this year by Texas to accommodate the arrival of Elvis Andrus.
Young succeeded Orlando Cabrera, who claimed the 2007 Gold Glove in an Angels uniform, with Aybar as his understudy.
Rancho Cucamonga’s good fortune is Arkansas’ bad luck.
Fans of the Angels’ high Class A California League team get the treat the next few nights of watching one of baseball’s premier players – Torii Hunter – work out the kinks after a month-long stay on the disabled list with an adductor strain on his right side.
Hunter thought he was ready to go play in his native Arkansas for the Angels’ Double-A affiliate in Little Rock over the weekend, but that fell through when he didn’t pass a strength test administered by the training staff in Chicago.
“That was really disappointing,” Hunter said. “I wanted to play at home. But at least I’m getting close. I’m hoping to be back out there [in center field for the Angels] this weekend in Baltimore. I hate sitting around watching.”
The Angels have held their ground in Hunter’s absence with Gary Matthews Jr. doing a solid job in center field. Matthews got his first day off on Tuesday night, with Reggie Willits in center, since moving in on a regular basis on July 8.
Hunter is batting .305 with 17 homers and 65 RBIs. His slugging (.558) and on-base percentages (.380) would be career highs.
Hunter’s injuries were the result of collisions with the walls at Dodger Stadium on May 23 and at AT&T Park in San Francisco on June 15.
A case can be made that Hunter was the MVP in the American League over the first half of the season, carrying his club offensively while playing the brand of defense that has made him a Rawlings Gold Glover winner eight years running. Angels color commentator and former Major League pitching star Mark Gubicza, one of the brightest talents in his new field, has made that observation.
The past month has brought validation to Gary Matthews Jr. With Torii Hunter sidelined, Matthews has started every game in center field during a 17-6 stretch by the Angels, contributing offensively and defensively.
“To be able to contribute to a winning team is something every player wants,” Matthews said. “All any player can ask for is the opportunity. When you’re able to go out and perform, help your team win, it feels good.
“It has reiterated the fact I can play every day and be successful. I’ve gotten some really big hits and been a key contributor to the team. It has reiterated what I’ve said and felt all along.”
Coming into Thursday’s series finale against the White Sox in Chicago, Matthews has hit safely in eight of the past nine games, batting .351 during that stretch with six runs scored and six RBIs.
His .247 batting average isn’t impressive, but he has numbers that clearly demonstrate that he has elevated his game in clutch situations. Matthews is batting .295 with runners on base, .344 with runners in scoring position, .455 with two out and runners in scoring position, and .571 with the bases loaded.
“I’ve never been afraid of big situations,” he said.
Matthews has talked with Chone Figgins about sharpening his focus with the bases clear, when his average slips to .206. But Gary also knows he excelled as a leadoff man in Texas in 2006, before signing his five-year free agent deal with the Angels, and that it’s just a matter of getting back to that mindset.
“I don’t check the numbers,” Matthews said, “but as a player, you know what you’re hitting in certain situations. I’ve been really comfortable hitting with runners in scoring position. I don’t know if it’s a matter of better concentration, but I’ve had some success in those situations that I’d like to carry over to all of my at-bats.
“Certainly it brings out your instincts in those big situations, but it’s also the competitor in any player. There’s something about having a runner on second base or third base. You know a pitcher steps it up a level, and as a hitter you have to step it up, too. In talking with Figgy about your approach with no runners on, it could be I’m trying to do too much in those situations.”
As he continues his rehab from an adductor muscle strain in his right side, Hunter knows his job is in good hands.
“For a guy who didn’t play regularly for three months,” Hunter said, “Gary’s playing at a high level. That’s not easy, what he’s done. He’s in the upper class of defensive center fielders, and he’s showing it. And he’s been coming up with big hits.
“It’s good you’ve got somebody like that who could be a starter anywhere else. We’ve got a lot of quality players on this team.”
Perhaps no player better embodies the Angels’ remarkable organizational depth and versatility than Sean Rodriguez, who is emerging as their new Chone Figgins with his ability to play capably all over the field.
“From the perspective of being an everyday player, he’s opened up a new dimension being able to play the outfield every day,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said on Wednesday as Rodriguez was back with Triple-A Salt Lake following two superb games in left field in Minnesota over the weekend. “He’s got enough thunder in his bat to play corner outfield. He can play second base every day, shortstop, third base. He’s a baseball player, a terrific athlete.
“The way he handled himself on the defensive end [at the Metrodome] is a plus. We’ve seen glimpses of the power he has. He’s putting it together.”
The Angels elected to return Rodriguez to Salt Lake and keep Reggie Willits on the 25-man roster because of Willits’ ability to do multiple things late in games — pinch run, get a bunt down, hit-and-run — and his superior experience in center field, where he’ll support Gary Matthews Jr. in Torii Hunter’s absence.
Rodriguez, a natural center fielder who played there at G. Holmes Braddock High School in Miami, transformed himself into a quality middle infielder after signing with the Angels in 2003 as a third-round choice in the First-Year Player Draft.
Developing his infield skills while hitting with power as he climbed the organizational ladder, Rodriguez returned to the outfield, playing all three positions along with the infield, to enhance his appeal as an all-purpose talent. It helped Figgins carve out his career, and now, having settled in full-time in one role, he’s one of the game’s elite third basemen.
Summoned to the big club from Triple-A Salt Lake, where he’s been pounding Pacific Coast League pitching all season, all Rodriguez did in two starts in Minnesota was lash a pair of singles and make two excellent defensive plays in his first start in left field, then bang a homer over the center field wall the following day.
Arriving in Chicago, Rodriguez learned that he was heading back to Salt Lake to make room for Vladimir Guerrero, coming off the disabled list after recovering from a muscle strain behind his left knee.
“It was fun while it lasted,” Rodriguez said. He couldn’t hide his disappointment, just as Brandon Wood and Bobby Wilson days before him.
Scioscia raved about the impression made by the 24-year-old Rodriguez last season at second base during a lengthy stretch in May with Howard Kendrick and Maicer Izturis both injured.
“This guy can play the game,” Scioscia said.
Rodriguez is batting .290 at Salt Lake with 23 homers and 79 RBIs in 81 games. Wood is batting .316 in the PCL with 17 homers and 55 RBIs in 74 games, while Terry Evans checks in at .290 with 22 homers, 76 RBIs in 105 games. Rodriguez has a narrow edge over Wood in slugging, .603 to .597, with Evans at .526.
When Gary “Sarge” Matthews was teaching his son the finer points of the game during Gary Jr.’s youth, there were insights and expressions culled from a life spent in baseball that resonate all these years later with the Angels’ outfielder.
“My dad used to tell me that he could teach me how to hit breaking balls and changeups – but either you can hit a fastball or you can’t,” Gary Jr. was saying on Father’s Day, his dad in Philadelphia where he works as a commentator on Phillies telecasts.
“My dad is as old school as it gets. That still rings true, but I have formed my own opinions over the years. I think one change in the game is that pitchers have evolved and now throw more breaking balls for strikes. Controlling the breaking ball, and not relying on fastballs as much early in counts, has changed things.”
In Detroit on the recent road trip, Matthews launched a 100-mph heater by Joel Zumaya – the hardest thrower in the game – deep into the right-field seats, foul. He’d turned on triple digits and was a split-second out in front of it, a display of remarkably quick hands.
On Saturday night at Angel Stadium, Matthews came off the bench in the ninth inning and launched a fastball from Dodgers reliever Jonathan Broxton into the seats in right center, turning a 6-2 deficit into what would be a 6-4 loss. It was the first Angels pinch-hit homer of the year and the fourth of Matthews’ career.
“I’ve never been accused of not being able to hit a fastball,” Matthews said, grinning.
Walking past Matthews’ locker, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said, “You can’t put one past him.”
Matthews is a man without a position, a man who wants to play every day but has no steady job with the Angels. Juan Rivera has been on fire in left, joining Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu in the outfield with Vladimir Guerrero absorbing designated-hitter at-bats.
Matthews has made it clear all season that he doesn’t think of himself as a backup and will not be happy in that role. He thinks he’s one of the game’s most gifted center fielders, and Hunter – the best – agrees. But that is not much consolation. When you’re an athlete and you’re sitting, you don’t feel right.
All Matthews can do now is accept his role and make the best of a difficult situation. He is an expensive insurance policy, a card that will remain in manager Mike Scioscia’s deck most of the time until someone in front of him is injured or falls into a major slump.
“Not much I can do about it,” Matthews said. “I’ll just keep working and be ready when I’m called on.”
His old-school dad is on the cellphone with his son all the time, offering perspective, support, all the things a young man needs when he’s frustrated.
It is possible something could happen around the July 31 Non-Waiver Trade Deadline, Matthews acquiring sudden appeal to a club in need of a quality center fielder. His salary – he’s in the third year of a five-year, $50 million contract – makes it unlikely. And not because Matthews has the contractual right to refuse a trade, as Jake Peavy did when the White Sox and Padres had worked out a deal.
Matthews yearns to be an everyday center fielder, but he’s on a club that employs the game’s best. It’s like being the guy who thought he’d have a crack at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo showed up with his brushes and paints.
Jered Weaver looked at me, and this is what his astonished eyes said: “You’re crazy.”
He was right, of course, but that was beside the point.
It was Saturday afternoon in the Angels’ clubhouse, and a bright, new Kobe Bryant jersey was hanging next to Weaver’s locker. My mind started racing. Weaver loves the Lakers. Like Gary Matthews Jr. and Sean Rodriguez, two other big Lakers fans, Jered actually has listened, with sincere interest, to my tales of the amazing ’80s when I was traveling with Magic, Kareem and Co., the greatest show on Planet Sports.
Strictly spur of the moment, I ran an idea past Weaver, who was pitching what would turn out to be his first career shutout, against the Padres, the next day.
“Jered,” I said, “why don’t you put the jersey on before you go to the mound on Sunday – a show of support for your other team – and have one of the clubbies come running out to take it as you pulled it off and waved it to the crowd? The Lakers are playing after your game, so it would be a nice touch.
“It would make all the highlight shows,” I added, “but more than that, it would be a show of solidarity. I think the fans would love it.”
That’s when he gave me that look that told me I was crazy.
He probably couldn’t have gotten it past manager Mike Scioscia, anyway. Mike is a serious-minded guy who fully adheres to all the principles about respecting the game, and I appreciate that.
But the game also could use some color, some characters in addition to all that character. Some honest emotion, from deepest left field if necessary, wouldn’t hurt from time to time.
I told Weaver, as he stood there in amused disbelief over my suggestion, that it was my idea to have Detroit Tigers sensation Mark Fidrych speak to baseballs and manicure pitching mounds in the mid-1970s.
It was a complete lie, and he called me on it immediately. But I did know “The Bird” and spent one memorable night out with him in Detroit after he’d shut out the Angels.
That was the same night I sat beside Fidrych in the home dugout at old Tiger Stadium and watched about 50,000 people stay in their seats for 15 minutes after the game while “Bird” did a radio interview, a headset wrapped around his curly head of wild hair.
“What’s going on here?” I asked him, pointing to all the people who’d remained in the house after the game, just sitting there.
“Watch,” he said, grinning.
When the radio interview was over, he pulled off the headset jumped up on the dugout steps and waved to the crowd, which rose and cheered for at least a full minute before finally dispersing.
It remains to this day one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed, a stunning show of unbridled love for an athlete who clearly moved to his own beat and did pretty much what he felt like at all times, without regard for how critics would react.
I long for those old days, but they’re gone, gone, gone. So is Fidrych, who died in an accident not long after Nick Adenhart, another pitcher with uncommon talent, left us in this most distressing of baseball seasons.
Bird, I’m sure, would have put on that Kobe jersey, happily, without hesitation.
In fact, it would have been his idea.
It was a less structured, less controlled, less serious world back then.
I miss it terribly.