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.”
Chone Figgins was in an unfamiliar position at his locker on Sunday morning.
For only the second time this season — not since April 26 — he wasn’t getting emotionally prepared to start a game.
“I’ll be ready for whatever they need,” he said. “But I don’t like sitting. Mike [Scioscia] knows that.”
Scioscia also knows everybody can use a breather now and then, so Maicer Izturis was in Figgins’ familiar role, playing third base and leading off, giving the manager a chance to play all three of his talented middle infielders – Izturis, Erick Aybar and Howard Kendrick.
“He’s played a lot,” Scioscia said. “I don’t know how many games in a row [he’s played], but a day off can refresh him a little bit. He’s a gamer. It’s a good time to get him to re-charge a little.
“There’s nobody in that room who’s not resistant to a day off, but you need to mentally re-charge.”
Figgins’ streak of consecutive starts ended at 92. He’d last sat one out on April 26 against the Mariners, with Aybar taking the leadoff spot.
Before the season, Figgins said his goal was to “play all 162,” referencing iron man Cal Ripken Jr. Maybe he’ll settle for 160.
Izturis and Figgins are locker neighbors in the home clubhouse, with Bobby Abreu on the other side of Figgins. Izturis is the least talkative of the threesome, but he’s always smiling.
“Izzy is my boy,” Figgins said. “If anybody’s going to take my place, I’m glad it’s him. He keeps me together.”
Izturis looked over and, naturally, smiled.
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.
For the record, the Angels say nobody on their roster is untouchable. But Erick Aybar is about as close as it gets.
Staying healthy and in the lineup after missing chunks of the past two seasons with hand and hamstring injuries, the 25-year-old shortstop from Bani, Dominican Republic is emerging as one of the game’s most exciting young talents.
Aybar grew up wanting to be like Rafael Furcal, and he is getting there in a hurry by combining superb and consistent defense with a sizzling bat and blazing speed on the basepaths.
With extraordinary range and only five errors in 79 games, Aybar’s .986 fielding percentage is surpassed by only three regular Major League shortstops. He’s batting .316 overall and in the clutch, with a .355 on-base percentage that represents huge improvement over his .298 figure coming into the season.
As Angels general manager Tony Reagins engages in dialogue with other clubs as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches on Friday, Aybar is a popular topic.
You can ask for him, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get him.
Toronto apparently found that out when it demanded Aybar as part of a multi-player package in exchange for Roy Halladay. The Angels are believed to be maneuvering for the Indians’ Cliff Lee, but Aybar again could be a deal-breaker.
“It doesn’t affect me,” Aybar said on Tuesday night through Jose Mota’s translation. “I have a job to do. I can’t worry about my name being out there. It’s flattering teams want me, but it also makes me sad.”
He loves the team he’s with and the style it plays, which is perfectly suited to his skills. Manager Mike Scioscia realizes that there are few athletes in the game on Aybar’s level, having repeatedly expressed the view that Erick has star potential once he settles in and shows consistency with the bat and in the field.
Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Indians, Aybar was leading Angels regulars with his .316 average, ahead of Bobby Abreu (.314), Juan Rivera (.311), Chone Figgins (.309), Torii Hunter (.305) and Maicer Izturis (.300).
It’s a deep and formidable lineup, and when Aybar is linked with Figgins on the bases, it can be a show. You’d be hard-pressed to find two quicker, swifter baserunners in the same lineup. It calls to mind the St. Louis days when Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee ran circles around teams.
“I feel confident,” Aybar said. “One thing I don’t feel is complacent. It feels good to be playing at this level. It’s a lot of fun.”
With an embarrassment of middle-infield riches – Aybar, Izturis, Howard Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez – along with other assets, the Angels could swing a deal by the deadline for a big-time starter or veteran setup man in front of Brian Fuentes.
Just don’t expect Aybar to be part of it.
The focus has been on Vladimir Guerrero the past few days in his return from a torn pectoral muscle, but deeper struggles are ongoing with Mike Napoli and Howard Kendrick, two of the Angels’ most lethal offensive weapons.
Napoli, mired in a 1-for-24 slump, was not in the lineup on Saturday night. Jeff Mathis got the call behind the plate against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a man Mathis has homered twice against.
Napoli was on fire in the designated hitter role, but a return to full-time catching has coincided with an offensive slumber. He lined out to center in his first at-bat on Friday night against lefty Jason Vargas before striking out twice and popping up.
Napoli’s average has fallen to .275 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 131 at-bats. Mathis is batting .229 and has 12 RBIs without a homer in 70 at-bats.
“Nap is a dangerous guy in that batter’s box,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He can hit the ball out to all parts of the field, and he has a good eye. Right now, he’s just having a little trouble squaring up some pitches that he had been hitting.”
After showing signs of breaking out on the road trip to Texas, L.A. and Seattle, Kendrick is hitless in 11 at-bats on the homestand, his average plunging to 229. He came into the season with a .306 Major Leager batting average after hitting .360 in the Minor Leagues.
Maicer Izturis got the start at second after Kendrick grounded out twice and struck out on Friday night.
“It’s a little spotty,” Scioscia said of Kendrick’s progress. “At times it looks like he’s making some strides. And there are times he looks a little frustrated, trying to do too much with pitches rather than square it up. He’s working hard. It’s something Mickey [Hatcher] is paying attention to. Hopefully, some hits will start to fall.”
Meanwhile, in Triple-A Salt Lake, versatile Sean Rodriguez is getting a lot of hits to fall — more than a few landing beyond walls. He has 17 homers and 50 RBIs with a .280 average through 46 games, slugging at a .652 clip.
“Sean started slowly, but he’s been putting some great swings on the ball,” Angels reliever Rich Thompson said, having played alongside Rodriguez in Salt Lake before getting called to Anaheim. “I’ve seen Howie when he gets hot, too, and pitchers can’t do anything with him. He hits shots everywhere. That will come, I’m sure. He’s too good a hitter.”
Angels second baseman Howard Kendrick was a late scratch from the Angels’ lineup on Sunday against the Dodgers with cramping in his left hamstring. Chone Figgins was moved from third base to second, with Robb Quinlan inserted at third base.
Hamstrings raise instant red flags with Kendrick, who was limited to 92 games last season by two trips to the disabled list for a strained left hamstring — April 14 to May 29 and Aug. 28 to Sept. 21.
Figgins has been almost exclusively a third baseman this season but has extensive experience at second and can make the transition seamlessly.
Quinlan, who had been struggling offensively, is coming off his best game of the season, delivering a double and two singles in four at-bats in Saturday night’s 5-4 loss in 10 innings.
“I’m trying to get my swing back to where I had it in the spring,” Quinlan said. “It felt a lot better last night. Hatch [hitting coach Mickey Hatcher] is helping me get it back. In Seattle, everything was by me. My timing wasn’t there. It just wasn’t pretty, the two games I played there. Sometimes it takes a little time. We’re going in the right direction.”
Quinlan’s start at third is his first of the season. He has made four starts at first base and one in right field, along with three as a DH. Figgins is making his first start at second this season, having started 40 of 42 games at third.
Kendrick has made 37 starts at second, with Maicer Izturis getting five starts there. Izturis has lower back stiffness, manager Mike Scioscia said, but should be available if needed.
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.
In Seattle now with the Angels, feeling their pain and unimaginable sense of desolation over the loss of Nick Adenhart, I am trying to carry on, but I still am numb, disoriented, not entirely here. My coping abilities clearly have limits.
It’s been six days. Six decades won’t be long enough to get over this.
This is essentially what Shane Loux was saying yesterday after a remarkable performance against the Mariners on a frigid day at Safeco Field in front of a packed house that had come to welcome Ken Griffey Jr. back to his original baseball home. We use the word courage much too often in sports, but I feel it’s a courageous effort for the Angels to just take the field at this time, let alone play the game at a high level.
Loux expressed a sentiment shared, I’m sure, by every Angels player, coach, manager Mike Scioscia and the entire organizational staff when he said Nick was in his thoughts all day long – and hasn’t left his thoughts since the horrible news came on Thursday morning.
The reader response to my post on Nick was heartwarming, but it also served to drive home the enormity of this loss. He was just getting started. I can’t seem to get past that right now, how it was all in front of him.
Friends have called, expressing various reactions, and one question I’m asked over and over is this: How good would Nick Adenhart have been if his career had played itself out?
My response generally goes something like this: “He’d have been great. How great, obviously, we’ll never know.” And that’s just tragic beyond words. He should have been allowed to fulfill his destiny.
When I first started watching Nick seriously, in 2008 in Arizona during Spring Training, I saw a remarkable resemblance in manner to Bobby Welch in his early days with the Dodgers. I recall writing something about that and then discussing it with Nick. I was drawn to his easy, laid-back manner, how he was so interested in everything I had to say about the game he loved. A lot of young people are preoccupied, quite naturally, with their own lives, but I sensed that Nick really enjoyed hearing about players from earlier times, what made them tick.
I also told him all about Don Sutton, another pitcher I covered who made it to the Hall of Fame with tools very similar to those of Nick Adenhart. Sutton wasn’t overpowering, but he could put his fastball where he wanted it and had a big, over-the-top curveball that complemented it beautifully. Sutton was a serious student of the game as a young man, absorbing everything he could, and that went a long way in making him the durable craftsman he became across two decades.
Sutton, I decided, was the type of pitcher Adenhart could become. Nick also had a dynamic changeup to go with the 92-94 mph heater and the 12-to-6 curve, and he had the burning desire to be great. It was concealed by a relaxed, almost nonchalant personal style, but I saw it in his eyes and felt it when we talked.
I’ll cherish for the rest of my days those conversations we had over the past two springs, how thrilled I was to watch him in his final performance against the Athletics. He pitched his way through trouble like a veteran that night, confident and in command.
Before the game, I was talking with Chone Figgins and Howard Kendrick when Nick walked past on his way to the training room. We’d talked about how he’d matured, how ready he was – and he gave me a look and a grin that told me everything I wanted to know.
He was ready for the challenge, fully prepared for the challenges awaiting him. He had found all the answers he’d been searching for, and now it was his time.
So, here’s my answer: I think he could have joined Don Sutton in the Hall of Fame someday. That’s how talented, how driven, Nick Adenhart was as a baseball player. As a person, he was a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, about as good as it gets.
The first home run by an Angels hitter in 2009 was produced by Howard Kendrick in the fifth inning on Monday night against Oakland lefty Dallas Braden. It was a blast, to right center, where Kendrick generates most of his power. Earlier, Kendrick had driven in the first run of the season with a line-drive single to right.
Future batting champ at work.
He’s going to be Howard Kendrick on mlb.com this season, not Howie. He is Howard in the Angels’ media guide, and, most importantly, he is Howard to his wife, Jody.
We talked about this one bright afternoon during Spring Training, new mom Jody holding Christmas baby son Owen Howard Kendrick, at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Jody told me they’ve learned to separate private Howard from public, baseball Howie, but I’m going with Howard.
When I asked him about it, Kendrick related the story of how a bubble gum card company wanted to use Howie, not Howard, on his card, and being the easy-going, agreeable gentleman he is, he said fine. Then it was a PA guy at a Minor League park calling him Howie, and it has stuck.
“When I hear people in the stands call Howie, I know they don’t know me,” Kendrick told me. “When I hear them say Howard, then I look. Those are the people who know me.”
Howard fits him. It was the name given him by his parents. Howie was somebody’s creation. I’m going with Howard here.
Besides, I’ve always believed in this truism: When in doubt, go with what the wife says. Jody Jensen, Mrs. Kendrick, says Howard. That clinches it for me.
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.