Back in the starting lineup for the first time since last September, Reggie Willits had a big night behind the amazing Matt Palmer on Wednesday.
With a burst of speed, Willits triggered the five-run third inning that gave Palmer the lead with an infield hit. Stealing second with another burst, Reggie scored the first run on Torii Hunter’s line single. With another hit later in the game, Willits was hitting .333 as the night ended — and his family was there to see it live.
“Jaxon, my 4-year-old, was really excited,” Willits said. “But Eli [who is 1] fell asleep. It’s funny, they had a shot on TV of Amber [Reggie’s wife] holding Eli when he was asleep. My parents were watching, and it was the first time they’ve seen him since February. So they were pretty excited about that.”
Willits feels he’s close to being back to full strength after an injury-riddled 2008. If that’s the case, the Angels have another weapon in their offensive arsenal. Willits hit .293 as a rookie, a club record, with a .391 on-base percentage that also was the best-ever by an Angels rookie.
One of the game’s best bunters and a solid defender at all three outfield spots, Willits stole 27 bases with an efficiency rate of 77 percent in ’07.
“Reggie can play, man,” said Mike Napoli, who has seen Willits flourish in the Minors hitting in the first and second spots in the order. “It’s good to see him get back out there and give us some spark.”
Willits was in the lineup, batting second, as a late addition after Gary Matthews Jr. experienced tightness in his lower back before the game.
“I love hitting in the two hole,” Willits said. “It gives me a chance to use what I have. I started seeing a lot of pitches and drawing walks at [Triple-A] Salt Lake before they called me up, which told me I’m getting my eye back.”
Manager Mike Scioscia applauded Willits’ performance in his first start since last Sept. 22.
“Reggie had a real good game,” Scioscia said. “It’s a good thing to see, a guy who can’t play for a little bit and does a good job. Reggie brings some things that are important to us.”
Willits and Bobby Abreu, with their uncommon ability to draw out at-bats with selectivity and foul balls, could drive a starting pitcher to distraction behind Chone Figgins, another disciplined hitter who can put together an eight-pitch at-bat.
The one familiar problem for Willits is the crowd in the Angels’ outfield. Reggie was back on the bench on Thursday.
Gary Matthews Jr. was a late scratch on Wednesday evening after experiencing tightness in his lower back. Replacing Matthews in right field and in the No. 2 spot in the order against Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield was Reggie Willits, making his first start of the season.
Willits,recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake on May 5, is hitless in two career at-bats against Wakefield.
Willits, who set a club record for rookies in batting average (.293) and on-base percentage (.391) in 2007, has had two at-bats in three game appearances this year. He’s 0-for-1 with a sacrifice, having gotten a sacrifice bunt down on Tuesday night as a pinch-hitter for Juan Rivera.
Willits, fifth in the 2007 American League Rookie of the Year balloting, is trying to recapture the form that made him a valuable member of that division-winning team after an injury-riddled 2008.
Matthews is hitting .271 with 12 RBIs and 11 runs scored in 19 games as an all-purpose outfielder and occasional DH.
Before Tuesday night’s game, Willits was joking with Rivera about replacing him after Rivera had gunned down a runner at the plate with a perfect throw from left center.
Asked if he had ever bunted in a Major League game, Rivera searched his memory and recalled a two-strike bunt he executed in 2005. The slugging Venezuelan actually had two sacrifice bunts that season.
Nobody could imagine Vladimir Guerrero ever being asked to bunt, however. It turns out Guerrero does have one sacrifice bunt in his professional career — with the Expos’ rookie team in 1993, his first pro season. He was 18.
Here’s how the Angels will line up against Andy Pettitte — rain is falling on a tarp in the late afternoon — at Yankee Stadium:
1. Chone Figgins, 3B
2. Gary Matthews Jr., RF
3. Bobby Abreu, LF
4. Torii Hunter, CF
5. Mike Napoli, DH
6. Howard Kendrick, 2B
7. Robb Quinlan, 1B
8. Jeff Mathis, C
9. Erick Aybar, SS
Jered Weaver, P
This is a big night for Napoli and his fans.Manager Mike Scioscia putting the big bopper in the DH spot could be a one-night stand, or it could be the start of something big — and productive.
Napoli has a big, long swing — and the highest home run ration in history among catchers. Critics would scoff that it’s a small sample, representing just 50 home runs, in relation to past receivers of renown such as Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella.
But Napoli is a born hitter. Jeff Mathis is a terrific catcher, young and getting better all the time. It makes great sense to have both of these guys in the lineup, as often as they can handle it. That’s why it seems like the right thing to do — Napoli as DH, catching occasionally, with Bobby Wilson summoned from Triple-A Salt Lake to back up Mathis.
Quinlan, a .417 career hitter against Pettitte with a double, two RBIs in 12 at-bats, also gets a start at first base in the wake of a rough night for Morales in the series opener. Kendry was hitless in four at-bats, striking out three times, after a recent surge of hits.
Old school to the bone, I do not like the idea of carrying 12 pitchers. I didn’t care for going to 11, frankly. I recognize that the bullpen has been beaten up a little bit in the season’s first month, but four position players off the bench reduces a manager’s options late in games. I’d rather have that extra bench player than a reliever who is there primarily to soak up innings in lost causes, after a starter has been knocked out early.
We’ll see if it lasts, Napoli as a DH, or if it’s a one-time thing. But I like it. I like it a lot. I think Napoli, with 550 to 600 at-bats and free of the physical burden of catching frequently, can hit 40 homers and drive in more than 100 runs.
“Nap’s got big-time power, man,” Hunter said the other day. “The guy can mash.”
Tonight, Napoli will be protecting Hunter, the cleanup man, in the No. 5 hole.
Surely, a factor in Scioscia’s decision is Napoli’s history against Pettitte. He’s 3-for-5 with a double. But when he’s locked in, seeing the ball well and driving it, no yard can hold him. Napoli in the batter’s box is a weapon.
So here’s the deal: Josh Beckett comes up and in on Bobby Abreu after time is called by the home-plate umpire, Paul Schreiber, and the upshot is the Angels lose their Gold Glove center fielder, their manager, their hitting coach and a middle reliever.
The Red Sox? They lose nobody, nothing.
This is how if often goes in sports. It’s the player/team that responds or retaliates that usually suffers the consequences.
The Angels lost Torii Hunter, Mike Scisocia, Mickey Hatcher and Justin Speier after the benches cleared. Order appeared restored before Beckett had words with Scioscia, and that’s what incited a second incident that led to all the Angels’ ejections.
I am aware of no history between Beckett and Abreu dating to their days as Red Sox-Yankees rivals. Abreu hasn’t done much against the ace over the years — .210 coming into the game with two homers and five RBIs. But Abreu did deliver a big hit, a two-run single, that gave the Angels a 3-2 lead in the third inning.
The best Angels hitter against Beckett has been Hunter, a .455 average with a double and two RBIs in 11 career at-bats. Gary Matthews Jr., who replaced Hunter, was 2-for-15 against Beckett (.133) coming into the game.
Matthews, who unleashed a spectacular throw to first from left center, only to watch Kendry Morales drop a shot at a double play in the top of the third, grounded out in his first two at-bats against Beckett. Morales’ misplay didn’t cost the Angels. Dustin Moseley got the next hitter, Dustin Pedroia, to bounce into a double play.
Torii Hunter made it four homers in three games today with another blast over the wall in center field. He knows he’s locked in when he’s smoking balls to the middle of the field, and that’s where he is right now. Before the homer, he launched one that was caught at the wall in right center that would have been gone in Texas.
Mike Scioscia has to like what he sees at the top of the order, with Chone Figgins smacking line drives all over the place and Howard Kendrick looking very comfortable in the No. 2 hole. Kendrick will learn that he’ll see a high percentage of fastballs hitting between Figgins and Bobby Abreu, who has tested pitchers’ endurance for years with his remarkable discipline.
As for Vladimir Guerrero, who crushed a double to cash in Abreu before Hunter’s bomb, everything appears to be in fine order for a 35 HR/125-RBI campaign. With Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera or Gary Matthews and Mike Napoli or Jeff Mathis coming up behind the top five, the Angels are going to score runs in numbers. And Erick Aybar/Maicer Izturis will serve as, in effect, a leadoff man in front of the leadoff man, Figgy.
I don’t think what we’re seeing this spring, this offensive explosion, is an aberration, a case of cleaning up on bad pitching. This is a good offense — and it could be a great offense if the big guns (and the top two) stay healthy. And even if they don’t stay healthy, they won’t lose a thing if Robb Quinlan, Brandon Wood, Matt Brown, Sean Rodriguez or Reggie Willits stand in for a spell.
The Angels have enough position players to field another quality Major League team. It almost isn’t fair when you see what they have in relation to what some other clubs are putting on the field.
Gary Matthews Jr. views himself as an everyday Major League outfielder, so it came as no surprise when he stormed out of a meeting with the brass on Sunday at the team’s Spring Training facility and did not accompany the team for a trip to Surprise for a game against his former team, the Rangers.
“We just let Gary know where things stand at this point in the season, and that’s about all I can say about it,” manager Mike Scioscia said of the meeting also attended by general manager Tony Reagins. “We were honest with him, and he let us know how he feels.
“Gary wants to play, and that’s understandable. But the way things are right now, he’s the fifth outfielder, coming off knee surgery. We have Vlad [Guerrero], Torii [Hunter], Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera, and those are four good players. Gary needs to focus on getting completely healthy and contributing when he can.”
Matthews, who has a full no-trade clause in his contract this season, would be owed a $500,000 assignment fee if dealt.
Matthews has said he would be more than open to a trade to a club that could use him on a regular basis, especially as a center fielder. He has three years left on a deal he signed after his 2006 All-Star season with Texas — $10 million this season, $11 million in 2010 and $12 million in 2012.
“As of today,” Reagins told reporters, “he’s going to be an extra outfielder. We gave him an update on his status. We were very forthright, but the details of the meeting will remain behind closed doors.”
Matthews changed into street clothes and left the facility, the team granting him permission to take the day off.
Matthews said he needed some time to “think things over.” After undergoing left knee surgery in late October, he “worked his butt off this” winter, according to Scioscia, and is in the midst of a strong spring, batting .258 with two homers, two doubles and a triple in 31 at-bats.
Gary Matthews Jr. is determined to play every day, preferably in center field. The Angels — overstocked with quality outfielders – do not appear to have a place for him to do so on a regular basis.
“There comes a time if a decision is made . . . ” manager Mike Scioscia said, not finishing the thought. “We’ve got a lot of bats here. We’ll address things in time. We’re not going to make a decision today.”
Recovered from late October surgery on his left knee, Matthews has been more than impressive in Cactus League play. He has been spectacular.
Matthews’ two-run homer against the Padres in Tuesday’s 10-5 Angels victory was a tremendous drive to right field that, he later reported, “came within six inches of hitting my Bentley” in the parking lot.
He crushed this one almost as far, he believed, as the one against the White Sox in the new Camelback Ranch-Glendale park that teammates estimated at 450 feet.
Matthews, who doubled in front of Maicer Izturis’ three-run homer in his first at-bat, is hitting .412 with 16 total bases in 17 at-bats.
“My play’s kind of doing all the talking for me,” Matthews said. “My play speaks louder than what I can say to anyone. I wasn’t supposed to be back until mid-May, late-May. I’m fine. I’m ready to go back to playing every day.”
With Torii Hunter entrenched in center field and Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera ahead of him on the outfield depth chart, Matthews has a hard time seeing consistent playing time coming his way no matter what he does.
He has gone to general manager Tony Reagins and Scioscia to express his desire to play regularly, and they have been candid with him, he said, about their point of view.
“You don’t play forever,” Matthews said. “I’m 34. Guys take such good care of themselves now. I’m 34. It’s not like I’m 24 and have time to sit around and waste years sitting around. That’s not what I’m going to do.”
That sounds very much like “play me or trade me,” a refrain as old as the game itself.
It was a serious and determined Gary Matthews Jr. who arrived early in camp this spring. After undergoing knee surgery on Oct. 28, he’d worked diligently to regain leg strength and expressed confidence that he’d be ready to play sooner than the club imagined.
He wasn’t kidding around.
In right field on Wednesday against the White Sox after playing center on Tuesday against the Padres, Matthews unloaded against Gavin Floyd in the fourth, an inning after Chone Figgins had launched a two-run bomb.
Matthews’ solo blast, his first of the spring, carried at least 420 feet, way beyond the 380 marker in right center. On Tuesday, manager Mike Scioscia expressed amazement over how well Matthews was running — “as well as ever,” the skipper said. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with Matthews’ power either.
The early projection was for Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu to share left field and the designated hitter role, but Matthews, if he keeps this up, might force some serious reevaluations by Scioscia and his staff.
There is still no official confirmation, but it appears that the Angels and Bobby Abreu are hammering out a one-year deal worth $5 million plus incentives, according to multiple reports. Abreu would provide left-handed balance in a heavily right-handed offense and would join a four-man rotation for the three outfield spots and designated hitter role with Vladimir Guerrero, Torii Hunter and Juan Rivera.
This will give the Angels another crowded outfield,with Gary Matthews Jr. (recovering from knee surgery) and Reggie Willits pushed down the depth chart. Both are versatile outfielders with talents that could play in other cities if the Angels decide to shop them. Matthews will have to prove he’s fully recovered from the knee operation, and Willits also needs a good spring to reestablish himself as a quality Major Leaguer after an injury-riddled 2008.
The upshot of the Abreu move is that it pretty much slams the door on any chance of Garret Anderson returning after 14 years as the club’s most productive career hitter. With Adam Dunn going to Washington, Anderson is the most attractive hitter left in free agency not named Manny Ramirez.