Results tagged ‘ Juan Rivera ’

What a season this is becoming

I’m sitting here in the Dodger Stadium pressbox, where I’ve spent hundreds of days and nights, watching Manny Ramirez circle the bases after unloading a first-pitch grand slam — on Manny Bobblehead Night, of all nights.

Mannywood erupts in front of me. He’s second all-time to Lou Gehrig in grand slams with 21, and I doubt the Iron Horse ever made an entrance like the one Manny did when he was summoned by Joe Torre to bat for pitcher Chad Billingsley.

Manny came out to a thunderous roar and swung the lead bat seemingly for five minutes before Reds manager Dusty Baker emerged from the dugout to replace Bronson Arroyo with Nick Masset.

Moments later, Manny was at the plate, swinging a hunk of wood, the crowd going wild. And the ball was sailing into the box seats in the left field corner, Manny circling the bases like the 12-year-old kid he is at moments such as this.

And here I sit thinking that this is shaping up as one of those summers we might not forget in Southern California.

The Angels just roared from behind in Kansas City, behind mighty mites Chone Figgins, Maicer Izturis and Reggie Willits, for another exciting victory, and they’re coming home on a roll. They’re doing all this winning without Torii Hunter, their best player, and without Vladimir Guerrero, their most feared hitter, and lately without Juan Rivera, who is having a tremendous season.

Mike Scioscia pushes buttons, athletes run out on the field, and the Angels win games.

I had an email from a reader the other day berating me for calling Figgins an MVP candidate. Why he was so livid about this, I have no idea. He claimed to be an Angels fan and couldn’t believe I would have the audacity to write such a thing. I was actually quoting Scioscia, but that seemed not to matter.

Well, I don’t see why Figgins can’t be an MVP candidate, just as I see no reason why Hunter, in the midst of his best season, also can’t be in the running.

I can’t see why the Angels can’t keep winning, and the Dodgers can’t keep winning, and we can have a magical summer all the way into October.

What would be better than that, an I-5 World Series, if you’re a  baseball fan in Southern California?

Funny, I was just talking about that subject tonight with Dodgers infielder Mark Loretta, who played for the Padres when they were a pretty decent team. As we were talking, Ramirez — out of the lineup after getting drilled in the hand on Tuesday night — walked by,pointed to Loretta and Ausmus, turned his hand inward toward his chest, and said, “Too much money on the bench tonight.”

Not long after that, I was sitting in the visitors’ dugout talking with Eric Davis. He was wearing a Reds uniform and looking good in it, and he was talking about how Manny had “transformed” the Dodgers the day he arrived with his personality.

“He takes everything on, and frees up everybody else to just play,” Davis said. “They watch Manny and realize that he’s just a big kid having a good time. That kind of thing has a big influence on a young team. You can see what it did for the Dodgers. It transformed them.”

Eric, one of the most talented athletes I’ve ever seen, was right. He was up in the pressbox, not far from me, when Mannywood exploded yet again. Davis was hardly surprised.

“He loves the game, everything about being a baseball player,” Davis had said as we sat in the dugout. “He is a joy to be around for teammates. Look at him out there, just a big kid having fun.”

At that moment, playing shortstop during batting practice, Ramirez hurled a baseball into the visitors’ dugout several feet away from Davis and beamed.  

Ah, yes. There’s magic in the air these days and nights. Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium are wonderful places to spend a summer night. 

Mentor Abreu a daily influence

Bobby Abreu is not just a source of walks, base-hits, runs scored and RBIs. He’s an endlessly rewarding source of information, insights and perspective for younger teammates of all shapes, positions and nationalities.

Chone Figgins watches teammates pick Abreu’s brain every day. As mentors go, he’s invaluable. Among those who have benefitted from the veteran’s wisdom are Juan Rivera, Kendry Morales, Maicer Izturis and Torii Hunter, as well as Figgins.

With Vladimir Guerrero’s production way down after his pectoral muscle tear, Rivera and Morales have arrived as forces in the middle of the lineup to pick up the slack, along with Hunter and Mike Napoli.

Rivera, Morales and Abreu all flourished in June. Rivera (24) and Abreu (23) were first and second in the AL in RBIs, Rivera batting .290 and slugging .590 while Abreu hit .303 with a .483 slugging percentage.

Morales batted .282 with a .588 slugging percentage. The first baseman unloaded five homers, three fewer than Rivera.

Morales and Rivera are in constant contact with Abreu.

“He’s teaching them to have a plan,” Figgins said. “Bobby always talks to them about their approach, not their swing. He never discusses swings — always your approach.

“For Juan and Kendry, and also for Izzy, hearing that every day from Bobby has obviously been a big plus. A lot of times he’s reinforcing what they’re doing. He stresses making sure you go after your pitch. If you put yourself in good hitting situations and get something good to hit, put a good swing on it.

“Bobby has shown over the years how effective his approach is, and all these guys are taking advantage of it.”

In the midst of what is shaping up as his finest offensive season across the board, Hunter has made the point that he’s a more disciplined hitter than at any point in his career.

“I thank Bobby for that,” Hunter said. “He’s shown me a lot of things. The man knows his stuff.”  

Too early to give up on Vlad

He’s finished. Swings at everything. Can’t get around on good fastballs. Can’t run. He used to be so great. What a shame to see him like this.

We’ve heard this before about Vladimir Guerrero.

One year and one month ago, to be precise.

Guerrero came into June last season in a sub-.250, horrendous slump. Doomsayers were writing him off left and right, claiming age — he was at least 45, right? — finally had caught up with the Angels’ great right fielder.

Well, he had a fairly strong response to that, if you’ll recall. Going on an absolute tear, Vladimir Nizao Guerrero, from Nizao, Dominican Republic, finished the season at .303 with 27 homers, 91 RBIs.

Considering how dismal his first two months had been, those numbers were a little astonishing. They enabled him to join Lou Gehrig as the only players in history with at least 25 homers and a .300 or higher batting average for 11 consecutive seasons. Nice company to keep,the Iron Horse.

The streak stops this season. There is no way Vlad is going to reach 25 homers, having stroked just one in his first 132 at-bats. The Angels are hoping the power stroke comes back a month later than last season, when he began to drive the ball in June and carried it to the finish line.

He is having a hard time getting any lift in his swing, grounding into eight double plays, more than one-sixth of the team’s total. In situations where he needs a fly ball, he’s rolling over and hitting ground balls to shortstop.

Manager Mike Scioscia and the staff have talked about moving him down in the order, to relieve whatever pressure the big bopper is feeling. But he was back in the No. 4 spot on Wednesday night for the series finale against the Rockies, between Torii Hunter and Juan Rivera, the club’s most productive hitters this season along with Kendry Morales.

It has to be killing Guerrero, but he doesn’t show it. He’s the same easy-going, humble, graceful guy he’s always been. The only difference is the streamlined look atop his head, making him look quite a bit younger than his 34 years.

“Right now,” Scioscia said, “he’s searching for some things. He’s a little frustrated. He has taken on challenges [in his career] like not many guys I’ve seen. It’s incredible, as banged up as he’s been, to put the numbers up and perform at his level. He’s as good as it gets in taking challenges.

“He’s expanded his zone and is long to the ball in some of his at-bats. Where his bat path is right now, he’s going to work hard to adjust that. Mickey [Hatcher, hitting coach] has been working with him on some things. He needs at-bats — move him [down] in the batting order, a day off. Hopefully, with some of these small adjustments he’s going to feel comfortable and start driving the ball the way we know he can.”

Guerrero, who went 3-for-3 in San Francisco in a pinch-hitting role, will return to that duty against the Diamondbacks when the Angels wrap up Interleague Play in Phoenix over the weekend.

That will have him rested for a series against the Rangers in Arlington, where he has a history of crushing balls. Maybe he’ll find himself deep in the heart of Texas — and quiet the critics again.    

Recalling fatherly wisdom

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.
   

Willits in, Matthews out

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.

 

 

Hunter scalding hot

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.   

Matthews, brass have emotional meeting

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.

Matthews wants to play every day — somewhere

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.
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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.

Bombs away!

The Angels brought their hitting shoes to Surprise, obviously. They got here for early batting practice, and it clearly is paying off. They produced nine runs on 10 hits in two innings against southpaw Horacio Ramirez, with Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli going back-to-back with bombs to right center following a Robb Quinlan homer in the first inning. (Quinlan looks sensational, by the way). Jeff Mathis joined the homer party in the third inning with a near replica of Quinlan’s bullet to left center.

Scorching Matt Brown already tripled in a run and singled, joining Rivera with two hits. Rivera also singled home two runs in the first inning. Juan seems to have found his groove. On Saturday, in Tempe, he launched a ball so high and so far, the third-base umpire (Jim Joyce) was left to guess whether it cleared the foul pole in fair or foul territory. It was so far above and beyond the pole, there was no way to tell. From where he sat, Mike Scioscia obviously thought it was fair, prompting him to do a full-tilt sprint to Joyce to voice his disapproval.

Scioscia, I can report from personal experience, still can throw hard. He asked me to warm him up before throwing BP, and he zinged a few. I bounced a few throws back to him, to make sure he could still get down and dig ‘em out as in the days of old. The last time I did this probably was right about the time he was breaking in as a young catcher with the Dodgers in Dodgertown. I’ll see how my arm feels in the morning, but I’ll be icing the shoulder after the game just in case.

John Lackey yielded a solo homer to Ryan Shealy but got out of a jam in the third when he struck out Jose Guillen to leave two runners stranded. Apparently, a handful of Angels fans in the crowd haven’t forgiven Guillen for his indiscretions in his final days with Team Scioscia, serenading him with boos and catcalls in his plate appearances.   

Matthews making his point

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.

 

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