After a robust August, hitting .337 with a .625 slugging percentage, Vladimir Guerrero needed a big September kick to prolong one of the game’s most remarkable streaks.
Batting a quiet .262 with two homers and 12 RBIs in 28 games, Guerrero fell short of .300 for the first time in his career, ending a stretch of 12 consecutive seasons at .300 or higher with a .295 average. It was also the first time since his rookie year in 1997, when he played 90 games, that Guerrero didn’t hit at least 25 homers, finishing with 15.
He’s a .321 career hitter with a .568 slugging percentage, having launched 407 home runs and produced 1,318 runs batted in. That counts for something in the mind of his manager, Mike Scioscia. But, fans being fanatics, it’s not enough to stop malcontents from calling for a new lineup spot for the cleanup man.
In Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Boston on Thursday night, Guerrero singled and scored a run in four at-bats. He also had a hit taken away in his first at-bat on a fine play by third baseman Mike Lowell.
But in a big spot early in the game, bases loaded and two outs in the third inning, lefty Jon Lester made Guerrero look bad, striking him out on an elevated fastball at his shoulders.
One of the great bad-ball hitters in the game’s history, Guerrero looked bad in that at-bat. But not bad enough for Scioscia to drop him in the order and elevate, say, Kendry Morales, who was in the No. 5 slot in Game 2 against Josh Beckett.
“Veteran’s pride is a non-issue,” Scioscia said, denying the widely held notion that Scioscia doesn’t want to hurt his slugger’s feelings. “In that one at-bat, he expanded his zone. One at-bat, he fouled a ball straight back that would have ended up in the rocks [beyond center field]. He hit a sharp ground ball in the hole that Lowell dove for. He had some good swings. In one at-bat, he got a little out of his element.”
Scioscia said he likes the “presence” Guerrero brings to the lineup hitting behind Torii Hunter, whose three-run homer was the big blow in Game 1.
“With Vlad, it takes one good swing, and he gets back where he needs to be,” Scioscia said. “In the middle of the lineup, we need a consistent presence, and we feel it’s going to be Vlad. He hasn’t hit the ball that poorly. In the Texas [AL West] clinching game, he hit four bullets all over the field. That was a week ago.”
Scioscia said that if Guerrero’s struggles warrant a move down in the order, he’d do it.
“If a player’s not getting it done at a level you would need, you would understand a change has to be made,” Scioscia said. “For our lineup to go, we’re definitely going to need Vlad going. We’re a better lineup if he’s swinging the way he can.”
With their leading hitter, Erick Aybar, batting in the No. 9 slot for Game 1 of the American League Division Series, the Angels either have an incredibly deep lineup or manager Mike Scioscia has something up his proverbial sleeves.
In this case, it’s probably both.
With Bobby Abreu batting second, between Chone Figgins and Torii Hunter, Scioscia likes to have a pair of table-setters in front of the versatile Abreu – a classic “swing man” in the manager’s mind, meaning he can set or clear the table.
Figgins and Aybar are the club’s fastest two players, and when they get moving, they’re a sight to behold. Abreu has the ability to do a lot of things behind, in effect, a pair of swift leadoff men.
Abreu drove in 103 runs and scored 96 this season, batting third 95 times and second 50 times. The Angels had a better record (60-35) with Abreu batting third than second (26-24), but Scioscia likes the way this lineup sets up.
Aybar, who made tremendous strides offensively in his selectivity in large part because of Abreu’s influence, excelled in the No. 2 spot. The Angels were 26-9 when the shortstop batted second, compared to a pedestrian 28-29 when Aybar batted ninth.
With Maicer Izturis batting second, the Angels were 34-21. Izturis is expected back at second base in Game 2 against Josh Beckett after Howard Kendrick – a .358 hitter in the second half – got the start at second against lefty Jon Lester.
Scioscia studies numbers to a degree, but he’s also an intuitive manager who relies on feel. He’d say the Abreu and Abyar lineup numbers are skewed by the times of the season when Abreu batted third vs. second and when Aybar hit ninth vs. second.
And when you’ve won six division titles in your first 10 seasons – something no manger has done before you – you certainly deserve a lot of benefit of any doubt
With Jeff Mathis catching John Lackey, the Angels had a .211 hitter batting eighth, right in front of Aybar and his .312 average. But Mathis made much better contact late in the season and hit .234 in the second half, compared to .192 before the All-Star break.
Ask Mike Scioscia if he’s pondering his playoff rotation, and he’ll give you a look he used to reserve for pitchers who threw at his head.
This is a man who simply won’t discuss October baseball until the Angels have reduced their magic number to zero.
That leaves it to those of us in the business of speculation to, well, speculate. If the playoffs were to begin tomorrow – a lovely thought, actually – the Angels would be welcoming the Red Sox to Angel Stadium, a modern facility with all the amenities not found in the creepy-crawly visiting clubhouse at storied Fenway Park.
After careful evaluation of performances from the recent past and very recent past, here is how your correspondent would anticipate the Angels’ starters shaping up for Games 1 and 2: John Lackey and Jered Weaver.
Lackey, the acknowledged ace and staff leader, also has been on a very nice second half roll. He has been the Game 1 starter the past two seasons against Boston, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t be matched up against Josh Beckett again, as in 2007, or Jon Lester, as in 2008.
Weaver has earned the Game 2 start as the club’s most durable starter all year, and he has done his best work at home.
As for Game 3, the nod here goes to the new guy, Scott Kazmir. He has pitched effectively in Fenway Park over the years, and there’s just something about the guy that makes you feel he’ll be on top of his game when it counts most. He’s an athlete, an old Texas football player, and his stuff – always good – figures to elevate a notch with October adrenaline.
The big question, then, is deciding between Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana for Game 4 in Boston. Both have had quality games there, but Saunders, overall, has been the more effective of the two in Fenway Park.
Saunders gets the call for that reason, and also because Santana has fared well in October relief assignments. He prefers to start, but he’s also smart enough to know he’s in some high-caliber company here, and it’s no insult to be dispatched to the bullpen in favor of a man with Saunders’ tools and attitude.
So, there you have it. Scioscia will not be happy when he sees this – I’m sure I’ve violated some sort of code of ethics in doing this. But it’s something that is on a lot of fans’ minds at the moment, and a guy trying to make a living in hard times has to do what he can to please the customer.
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.