As promised, Angels manager Mike Scioscia shuffled his lineup for Saturday night’s game, trying to find some missing chemistry – and runs – after going 0-for-19 the previous two games with runners in scoring position and striking out a total of 28 times.
Bobby Abreu was bumped up to No. 2 from No. 3, with Torii Hunter assuming the spot between Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero. Giving Erick Aybar a day off and taking over at shortstop, Maicer Izturis was placed in the No. 9 spot, giving the Angels a pair of table-setters in front of Abreu.
Two RBIs shy of 100 for the seventh straight year, Abreu has not been himself lately. He is in a 2-for-27 slide with 14 strikeouts, an uncommonly high number for a guy known not only for his ability to work counts but to put the bat on the ball and move it around the field.
By hitting Abreu second, Scioscia might free him up from thinking about driving in runs in favor of putting the ball in play behind leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins.
Abreu, 35, has 640 plate appearances in 145 games, trailing only Figgins among teammates. It could be a case of mental fatigue setting in for Abreu, who has made 119 starts in right field, 10 in left and 12 as a DH.
“I don’t know if it’s mental fatigue,” Scioscia said. “We talk to him every day to make sure he’s moving in the right direction. He feels fine physically. Mentally, he’s as strong as anybody I’ve been around.
“I don’t think that’s an issue. He’s been through pennant races. For a while he started squaring it up, but lately, obviously, he’s trying to find some things.”
Catchers Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis have been spending most of the time in the No. 9 spot with Abreu batting third. The start in that spot is the fourth for Izturis, and the Angels are unbeaten with him in the No. 9 hole.
“In theory, there are more options [with Izturis in front of Figgins],” Scioscia said. “We’re going to try to connect our hitters with this lineup, and the situational look is going to have to come from the bottom.”
Despite their recent struggles, eight of the nine hitters in the lineup were at .288 (Juan Rivera) or higher, but only three – Figgins and Kendry Morales (both at .301) and Hunter (.300) — were at .300 or better. Mathis is batting .209.
Guerrero, in quest of a 13th consecutive season batting at least .300, comes in at .296.
Even with their 0-for-19 the past two games, the Angels still lead the Majors in hitting with runners in scoring position at .295 and lead in overall batting average as well at .284.
They’re calling themselves “The Four Amigos,” making light of each other with inside digs in the familiar manner of lively, good-natured fraternity brothers.
Lately, Jeff Mathis has been catching most of the flak, some of it self-directed.
“I feel like I’m back in high school, catching seven innings,” Mathis said, grinning.
This is where Bobby Wilson comes in, having arrived as a Sept. 1 reinforcement along with Ryan Budde to provide depth at the catching position behind Mathis and Mike Napoli.
“I’m the middle innings guy,” Wilson said, smiling.
“I’m the closer,” added Napoli. “And he” – pointing to Budde, catcher No. 4 – “is the microwave. He heats everybody up.”
Manager Mike Scioscia loves his catchers, relating to them in ways he can relate to no other players for obvious reasons. He lived the life for many years and knows everything there is to know about it.
Scioscia has been pulling Mathis late in close games for pinch-hitters, largely because his offense hasn’t caught up with his brilliant defense this season.
Outgoing and personable, the fours catchers love this time of year when they’re all together. They spend six weeks in close quarters during Spring Training, and they’re reunited in September.
Napoli, Mathis and Wilson share Florida roots, while Budde is an Oklahoma native.
Napoli has been known to launch big flies, but he might not be as strong as Budde, who kills golf balls and occasionally drives a baseball as far as Napoli.
Wilson, as a hitter, uses the whole field and makes solid contact.
“We’ve got four Major League catchers,” Scioscia said. “These guys can all play at this level.”
Unfortunately, only one can play at a time – even if there are nights when as many as three manage to stay busy, with Budde on call.
If the Angels nail down another AL West title, Wilson could be on the postseason roster, giving Scioscia the option of holding back Napoli for late pinch-hitting duties. With one of the five starters going to the bullpen, a spot could open up for a third receiver if Scioscia wants to go in that direction.
It’s a good thing Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis have a highly evolved relationship – and matching senses of humor, also fully developed.
They share and share alike, the way best friends are supposed to act.
The Angels co-catchers are fully aware of the friction generated by the fact that only one of them can play at a time, given that the designated-hitter role belongs to Vladimir Guerrero.
Most of the anger and resentment from fans come when Napoli and his booming bat are on the bench alongside manager Mike Scioscia, who values Mathis’ athleticism and game-calling ability more highly than fans fixated on raw numbers.
For the record, the Angels are 38-26 when Napoli catches, 36-21 when Mathis calls the shots. The club is 11-5 when Napoli is the DH.
Before Sunday’s series finale at Rogers Centre, Napoli getting the call against southpaw Ricky Romero, the two catchers were having some laughs when the subject of the perceived competition between the two was dropped in their laps by your faithful correspondent.
“I know a lot of people want Mike in there,” Mathis said. “I understand why.”
Fans – not just chicks – dig the long ball. Napoli, after a three-run ninth-inning bomb on Friday night, has produced 17 homers and 48 RBIs in 306 at-bats, about a half-season worth. Mathis has five homers and 26 RBIs in 179 at-bats.
No catcher in history has produced homers per at-bat at a greater rate than Napoli.
Napoli is hitting .297, Mathis .212 – despite an August surge during which he has hit .294. All five of his homers have come in his past 29 games.
“If you want fans to like you more,” Napoli said in that familiar banter that goes on between the two best buddies, “hit better than .212.”
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Mathis replied, grinning.
The most important aspect of their relationship is the mutual respect. They’re constantly sharing information, offering advice and encouragement, a team within a team.
Napoli admires Mathis’ remarkable athleticism and defensive skills and is keenly aware that the staff ERA shrinks by almost a run when his buddy dons the catching gear.
Mathis is in awe of Napoli’s hitting skills and plate discipline, which are on a level with most of the game’s premier sluggers.
They’ve been roommates for years now. Fans readily take sides, most of them drawn to Napoli’s loud bat, but nothing will drive these two guys apart.
The Angels are lucky to have two premium receivers — even if fans don’t realize it. A third, Bobby Wilson, has Major League skills at Triple-A Salt Lake, and Hank Conger and others are making progress throughout the organization.
Scioscia always says you can’t have enough good pitching, but he obviously feels the same way about guys who ply the trade he handled so well for so long.
There are very few catchers Mike Sciosica puts in Jeff Mathis’ class defensively. Offensively, Mathis has “underachieved” in his manager’s evaluation.
“He’s got more offense in him, for sure,” Scioscia said. “There are probably a lot of things contributing to it. He hasn’t come to the park knowing he’s going to get four at-bats. That’s obviously important to a young player. He has more than he has brought to the offensive end.”
After enduring nightmarish months of June (.158) and July (.147), Mathis has come alive in August. He was hitting .300 in 30 at-bats this month coming into his start on Saturday against Scott Richmond, with a .467 slugging percentage. Those numbers would be even higher if not for several recent shots and long drives that found gloves.
Overall, Mathis has brought his average to .211 with five homers and 26 RBIs in 175 at-bats. He’s batting .267 with runners in scoring position, continuing a career trend of doing his best work when it matters most.
Last season, for example, he batted only .194 – five points below his current career average – but he produced nine homers and 42 RBIs in 283 at-bats, a half-season.
“The power production we get from our two catchers [Mathis and Mike Napoli] is about as good as there is in the game,” Scioscia said.
Mathis came to Spring Training in a hitting groove, having spent the winter hitting in a home-made cage in the barn he calls home in Florida, and went through an intensive session with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher upon his arrival in Tempe, Ariz.
This translated into a brilliant spring, inspiring confidence that Mathis – a superlative athlete recruited to play football at Florida State – was on his way to a breakout season.
“I’ve gotten away from things I was doing in Spring Training,” Mathis said. “I feel like I’ve gotten back in a better place to hit. I’m shorter to the ball, letting the ball get deeper. The big thing is laying off pitchers’ pitches.”
Like all the Angels’ hitters, Mathis has been a study of Bobby Abreu, a textbook example of how to approach at-bats with his remarkable discipline.
“Watching him helps,” Mathis said. “He recognizes the pitch so quick, and you don’t see him getting fooled and taking bad swings very often. He gets in good counts, and even when he has two strikes, he’s confident he can find something to hit. He never panics.
“To appreciate what he does, you have to see him every day. Playing against him, you don’t realize everything he does. You know he’s a good player – just not this good. He doesn’t just do it in one game, one series. He does it every day. It’s 162 games with Bobby.”
The Angels will face the Yankees this weekend without the heart of their lineup.
Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, the third and fourth hitters in the Angels’ lineup, were placed on the 15-day disabled list on Friday. The move will take Hunter, selected for the American League roster in the players’ poll, out of what would have been his third All-Star Game appearance.
Recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake to help fill the void were infielder Brandon Wood and catcher Bobby Wilson. Wilson’s presence as a backup to Jeff Mathis will free up Mike Napoli for designated hitter duty.
Guerrero, 34, has a strained muscle behind his left knee and a lower hamstring strain. He landed awkwardly pivoting to make a play in right field against the Rangers on Tuesday night.
Hunter, 33, has an adductor strain in his right side, an area he has been favoring for almost two months. He initially injured his right rib cage banging against the wall at Dodger Stadium making a catch on May 22 and re-injured the area crashing into a wall in San Francisco on June 15.
He missed only one game, after the June 15 mishap, but was forced out of the lineup on Wednesday night when he couldn’t run full tilt the night before against the Rangers.
“I didn’t want to go on the DL – that’s not me – but maybe it’s for the best,” Hunter said. “The way I have it figured, I should be ready to go on July 22. The All-Star break helps, since those days count.”
Guerrero, who had right knee surgery last September, was playing in his second game in right field after tearing a pectoral muscle in an exhibition game on April 2. Serving primarily as a DH, he is batting .290 with four homers and 21 RBIs in 46 games. Guerrero has missed 38 games this season while on the DL.
Hunter, who already had declined an offer to participate in the State Farm Home Run Derby in St. Louis at the All-Star Game, is batting .290 with team highs in home runs (17) and RBIs (65) in 77 games. This is his first trip to the DL with the Angels and his first since 2006.
An eight-time Rawlings Gold Glover, Hunter has been as good as ever defensively while enjoying potentially a career year with the bat.
Wood, 24, is batting .313 with 17 home runs and 52 RBIs in 70 games for Salt Lake, ranking third in the Pacific Coast League with a .592 slugging percentage.
Wood, a natural shortstop who can play third and first base effectively, excelled in two starts – including one big hit against CC Sabathia of the Yankees in a victory at Yankee Stadium – before he was sent to Salt Lake.
Wilson, 26, is batting .261 with seven homers and 27 RBIs in 65 games at Salt Lake. With Wilson in support of Mathis, Napoli can return to the DH role, where he flourished during Guerrero’s absence.
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.”
The arrival of Bobby Wilson from Triple-A Salt Lake means the Angels can now have Mike Napoli’s lethal bat in the lineup every day if they choose to do so.
It seems like a slam dunk, given how Napoli has produced in the designated hitter role: 10 for 17, bullets and bombs flying everywhere.
“I like the whole DH thing,” Napoli said before Tuesday night’s game against the Red Sox at Angel Stadium. “I also like catching, too.”
When Napoli catches, however, it means their best receiver — Jeff Mathis — is not in the lineup. Napoli is a big Mathis fan, being his roomie and best buddy, and vice versa. In their perfect world, they’re both in the lineup on a regular basis. And the only way that can happen is for Napoli to DH or play first base, something that could happen down the road.
Steady Robb Quinlan is Kendry Morales’ backup at first now. Quinlan is eligible for free agency after the season, and he’s expected to pursue greener pastures — and more at-bats — elsewhere. That means there could be at-bats available for Napoli at first, where he has played and played well according to teammates, in the Minor Leagues.
The whole point is to keep Napoli healthy and in the lineup. He has missed chunks of the past two seasons with injuries, playing a total of 153 games in 2007 and 2008. That’s about as many as he should play in one season, something he can do as a DH/first baseman.
It’s remarkable, given his frequent absences with shoulder, hamstring and ankle injuries, that Napoli has the highest home-run ratio for a catcher in MLB history — 51 bombs in 790 at-bats.
Imagine what he could do without the wear and tear of catching, with his legs, serving as his foundation, fresh in the late innings rather than worn down.
Napoli is a good athlete, but Mathis, a high school sensation as a quarterback in Marianna, Fla., is an extraordinary athlete. He makes plays few catchers can even consider, notably on dribblers and bunts near home plate. His hands and feet are amazingly quick, and pitchers rave about his pitch selection.
“It’s incredible, the things Jeff can do back there,” Napoli said.
Angels pitchers, overall, have fared better with Mathis. His catching ERA is about a half-run lower per game than Napoli.
Wilson, with a strong arm and a presence behind the plate, also is a quality receiver — and he can hit, using the whole field.
Wilson provides protection in the late innings, and Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he wouldn’t hesitate to use the new guy.
All of this is temporary, it needs to be pointed out. When Vladimir Guerrero returns from his torn right pectoral muscle, presumably sometime next month, he’ll usurp the DH role until he can return to right field. But Napoli can savor the opportunity now.
“It’s a lot less stressful, DHing, than catching,” Napoli said. “You can think about hitting all the time. I watch the game — I’m still into the game — but I can go down in the video room and check out the pitcher between at-bats and do my routine I’ve developed to stay loose.”
He certainly sounds like a guy who thoroughly enjoys this role.
Brandon Wood realistically couldn’t have done any more to keep his spot on the 25-man roster, but he’s back in Salt Lake, getting the at-bats that were not available in Anaheim.
What the Angels have in mind for Wood, now and long term, I don’t know. I suspect he’s their fallback at third base if Chone Figgins departs via free agency, but I also think he could slide in on a daily basis there next year if Figgins is retained as an outfielder or an all-purpose player.
Trouble is, if Figgins thinks that he’s going back to being something other than any everyday third baseman, it’s doubtful he’d want to come back. He loves having a position and a role, and who can blame him? He has shown himself to be a quality third baseman and one of the game’s best leadoff hitters.
Manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged before Wednesday night’s game against the Blue Jays and the great Roy Halladay that the decision-makers had considered bringing up Bobby Wilson to back up Jeff Mathis, with Mike Napoli sliding into the DH role on a regular basis.
Apparently, they decided it wasn’t time for that bold move and recalled instead Reggie Willits, a versatile and highly underrated role player who can do many positive things for a club.
Personally, I’d find a place for Wilson and Willits, but Scioscia feels he needs 12 pitchers and will continue to carry 12 until the pitching staff comes together. That could happen in June, July, perhaps not at all.
Again, this is just my opinion, but Napoli should be in the lineup every day, and the only way that’s going to happen is as a DH who occasionally catches and/or plays first base. What he does with a bat is too valuable to risk with the kinds of injuries that have sent Napoli to the DL the past two seasons.
In his two starts as a DH, Napoli celebrated with six hits in seven at-bats, with two walks and three RBIs. The one out he made sent an outfielder to the wall at Yankee Stadium.
The guy is a lethal hitter. I think he could approach Miguel Cabrera’s numbers in Detroit as an everyday DH. Mathis and Wilson are quality defensive players, both capable of hitting in the .250 range. Mathis has shown that even though he doesn’t hit for a high average, he is clutch. We’ve seen him deliver big hits under pressure frequently, and there’s a reason for that — he’s an athlete who happens to catch. You’ll never see a more athletic catcher.
Wilson has paid his dues and is ready for a role in the big time, along with a half-dozen teammates in Salt Lake. Wood, back with the Bees, is an everyday Major League talent right now with no place to play in Anaheim with the Angels’ abundance of quality infielders.
Like Napoli, Wood, playing every day, has the ability to hit 30 homers and drive in 100 runs. He won’t hurt you at third or at shortstop, either. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
As they used to say in Brooklyn, wait’ll next year.
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.
Vladimir Guerrero is gone for a long spell with his torn pectoral muscle. It might be mid-June before we see him swing a bat again with meaning. Something needs to be done to generate more power, more force, in the Angels’ lineup. But it doesn’t necessarily require a deal.
The Angels need to at least try to make better use of two potentially lethal weapons already at their disposal: Mike Napoli and Brandon Wood.
With Guerrero out, this would be an ideal time to see what Napoli can do as a designated hitter. My feeling is that he’s a natural-born slugger who would emerge as a consistent power source once he’s liberated from the taxing physical demands of catching. That job beats a guy up, drains him. There have been few players like Johnny Bench, who played in an era when games were much shorter and strike zones were larger, meaning fewer pitches to call and absorb.
Jeff Mathis is a superior receiver, as athletic as any catcher I’ve seen. Playing regularly, he’ll hit in the .250 range with some power. Napoli as DH is an idea whose time has come. With his long swing — we’ve seen what he can do when he’s locked in — he could be 35-homer, 110-RBI guy.
Which brings us to Wood. We’ll never know what Brandon can do until he gets a shot at some consistent playing time. His power is as real as Napoli’s. Brandon made big strides this spring in selectivity and discipline. He looks ready to become a solid player, perhaps a big-time run producer. And there is nothing at all wrong with Wood’s defense, at shortstop or at third base. There must be a way to work Wood into the rotation on the left side of the infield.
As this is written, we’re 15 games and six innings into the season. The Angels have 12 home runs — six by Torii Hunter, three by Napoli, three by everybody else.
Wood had four home runs and eight RBIs in seven games at Triple-A Salt Lake, batting .346. Bobby Wilson, who would be summoned as the backup catcher, is hitting .300 and slugging .733 with three homers and six RBIs in eight games.
The Angels are carrying 12 pitchers. Eleven should be enough. If you’re using your 12th guy, it’s pretty much a lost cause anyway.