TEMPE – One of my new friends in the Japanese media, Taro Abe of Tokyo Chunichi Sports, had his game face on early Sunday morning.
“Big day today,” Taro told me. “Ichiro is coming with the Mariners. Ichiro and Matsui.”
Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui are the two biggest names in the biggest sport in their homeland. It is not an exaggeration to refer to them as the Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson of Japan — or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, to be more current.
They are as different off the field as on, Matsui down-to-earth and easy-going, Ichiro edging toward flamboyant — and less accessible. Seven or eight Japanese media members accompany Ichiro, while the Matsui following runs from 15 to 40 or so, depending on the day and the storyline.
“We’ll have a lot of Japanese media here today,” Taro said, grinning.
This is the first meeting between the new American League West rivals, Ichiro in right field and leading off, Matsui batting fourth as the Angels’ designated hitter.
The matchup lost some of its appeal when projected Seattle starter Cliff Lee was forced to withdraw with a lower abdomen strain, taking some heat off a potential confrontation in the desert sun with Jered Weaver. Another lefty, Luke French, replaces Lee.
This game doesn’t count in any significant way, shape or form, but it will be covered with passion and feeling in Japan, where every movement by Ichiro and Hideki is a photo opportunity.
Asked on a fairly daily basis when Matsui will take a glove to left field, manager Mike Scioscia offered a creative new response Sunday.
“We’re down to hours,” he said, pausing with the timing of Jack Benny for effect. “Of course, it might be 316 hours, something like that.”
Matsui batted five times in a camp game Saturday against the Giants and was 0-for-2 with three walks. He is still searching for his power stroke, hitting a lot of ground balls while going 2-for-18 in Cactus League play. The lift will come when his balance and timing are at optimum levels.
Ichiro is doing what Ichiro does, hitting .250 in nine games with four steals. The new man behind him in the Seattle lineup, former Angels leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins, is off to a sluggish start, hitting .130. Behind Figgins, No. 3 in the order Sunday, is another former Angel, first baseman Casey Kotchman.
When the opening bell rings and the games matter, Ichiro and Figgins will form one of the game’s most dynamic 1-2 tandems, bringing new flavor to a newly shaped rivalry along with the Matsui-Ichiro duel.
The Angels haven’t lost a season series to Seattle since 2003 and have won four in a row. They’ll face the Mariners 19 times this season, and each one will have a great deal of meaning in a distant land.
One thing is certain: Japan’s media won’t miss a thing. The first of those 19 meetings, on May 7 in Seattle, is circled on a lot of calendars. They won’t get together in Anaheim until May 28 for a fthree-game series. The pot should be boiling by then. – Lyle Spencer
Cue up the Four Tops. “It’s the Same Old Song” with respect to the Angels’ catching situation.
Mike Napoli is hitting up a storm this spring and trying to work through some throwing issues. Jeff Mathis is catching and throwing superbly but struggling to find base hits.
Manager Mike Scioscia used familiar language on Friday morning when he was asked about his catchers and – specifically — if a spot on the 25-man roster can be carved out for third receiver Bobby Wilson, who is out of Minor League options.
“It’s the same as the last couple years,” Scioscia said. “It’s worked out that it’s been a split. I know those guys [Napoli and Mathis] have the ability to go out and catch 130 games each. Why they haven’t done it is because there have been some rough spots on the offensive or defensive end.”
He didn’t have to spell out which receiver had which flaws. It has been there for everyone to see.
Napoli came into camp feeling healthier than at any time in the past three years, and it has shown with his exceptional ability to crush balls and draw walks. If he ever gets enough at-bats, he’s capable of putting up huge power-production numbers, in the 30/100 range, with a .360 to .380 on-base percentage and .500-plus slugging mark.
Not many receivers can do that. The question is whether his defense will allow Napoli enough plate appearances to stay locked in, given that Scioscia continues to value defense first and Mathis clearly is the better catcher in every respect.
Mathis has been throwing lasers this spring, while Napoli has been unloading some changeups. Scioscia has seen improvement in recent days with Napoli.
“It’s definitely mechanics,” Scioscia said, identifying the source of Napoli’s throwing issues. “It’s related to moving forward, with a rhythm.”
Basically, to paraphrase another old catcher named Yogi Berra, Napoli is finding that you can’t think and throw at the same time. He’s trying to conceptualize his mechanics rather than just cutting it loose confidently.
“When he’s on, he’s a plus thrower,” Scioscia said. “When Jeff’s on, he’s plus-plus. Jeff has been throwing as well as he ever has.”
From glove to glove, as Scioscia puts it, Mathis can get the ball to second base on a steal attempt in 1.9 seconds. Napoli is in the 1.95 to 2.05 range.
“With a 1.9, glove to glove, not many guys are going to beat it,” Scioscia said.
Scioscia said he wants to keep Wilson, but it’s hard to see how that can happen unless the club carries 11 pitchers on Opening Day and has one of the three catchers available as a backup at first base for Kendry Morales.
Wilson has played some first base and so has Napoli, but that was in the Minor Leagues.
“Nap is focused on being in our catching depth,” Scioscia said. “Bobby has played some first base. It would be an easy switch for him. Ryan Budde’s also played some first base.
“They’re still going through that pitcher-catcher relationship of trying to work with everybody on the staff.”
If the Angels can’t find room for Wilson, he’ll have to be dealt in order to avoid losing him to waivers. The same applies to power-hitting outfielder Terry Evans, also out of Minor League options.
“You don’t want to lose players, obviously,” Scioscia said. “Those two guys we’re talking about, Wilson and Evans, are Major League players, no question about it.”
The question is whether they’ll be Angels, and that likely won’t be answered until the last few days of Spring Training. — Lyle Spencer
Reds manager Dusty Baker was a member of the panel that recently discussed the status of African American players in baseball, and he was taken aback by quotes attributed to Angels center fielder Torii Hunter in a national publication.
“I must have left before any of that,” Baker said. “I didn’t hear it at all. I know Torii was probably trying to make light of the situation – and that’s not Torii Hunter, how it came out in print.
“He’s one of the most respected players around the game by everyone in the game. All I know is that whatever way it came out, I refuse to believe Torii believes that. He’s a unifier. He’s always treated everybody the same, with respect. That’s one of the reasons why he has such a great reputation in the game, along with the way he competes.”
Hunter was stunned and hurt by how the story portrayed his perception of the racial balance in the game. He said he was merely trying to point out that “black kids from America are different from kids growing up in Latin America, with different cultures, but we all share a love of the game.
“I’ve spent my whole career trying to get young kids involved in this great game,” Hunter said, “and that’s not going to change. It’s hurtful when something like this causes perceptions that are not accurate.”
>>>>>>Kazmir ready to go
Snuffed by the Reds, 6-0, on three hits on Wednesday, the Angels got some good news on the pitching front. Southpaw Scott Kazmir, whose spring started slowly with residual pain from a right hamstring strain, made it through 31 pitches in a camp game and is set to go in the rotation. His turn comes up on Monday when the Dodgers visit Tempe Diablo Stadium.
“He looked great,” Scioscia said. “It was a really good workout for him.”
TEMPE, Ariz. – Scot Shields and Kevin Jepsen, constant companions throughout Spring Training in the clubhouse and on the field, were beaming on a cool Tuesday as they made the walk back from the Minor League fields to Tempe Diablo Stadium.
Accompanying the two Angels relievers was the club’s all-time saves king, Troy Percival, who is in camp with a pair of southpaws of renown, Chuck Finley and Mark Langston, providing equal measures of wisdom and good humor.
Percival had watched two of his heirs in manager Mike Scioscia’s bullpen throw 20 pain-free pitches in a simulated game, taking what they hope were the final steps leading to their Cactus League debuts sometime this week.
Shields is coming back from June surgery on his left, landing knee, while Jepsen got a late start because of some stiffness in his pitching shoulder when he arrived in camp.
“A good day,” said Shields, the game’s most durable and productive setup man since 2004 and the club’s elder statesman in terms of service with the Angels. “I threw fastballs, three or four curveballs, no changeups. I got behind a couple guys but got back [in the count]. The movement was there.
“Everything felt good. I think I’m ready to get in a game, but it’s their call on that.”
Jepsen, who threw 54 2/3 innings for the Angels last season and 18 more for Triple-A Salt Lake, felt the wear and took it relatively easy in the off-season, highlighted by his Nov. 13 Cabo San Lucas, Mex., marriage to Andre Foisy.
“It didn’t feel like 20 pitches,” Jepsen said. “I felt great, ready to go. I felt strong for the first time throwing to hitters this spring. I’m ready to go at it.”
How these two valuable right arms feel on Wednesday in response to the workouts will factor into whether they’re turned loose next in live game action or given another outing against hitters wearing their own jerseys.
Joel Pineiro, scheduled to start on Tuesday against the Padres, had a meeting with the dentist instead when he showed up with a very sore mouth. Anthony Ortega took his place and pitched effectively in the 6-5 win, holding the Padres to one earned run in three innings. Brian Fuentes also had a strong second outing, and Trevor Bell (two unearned runs in two innings) impressed Scioscia along with Francisco Rodriguez, who pitched a perfect ninth.
Ryan Mount homered, and Bobby Wilson’s two-run triple and Reggie Willits’ two-run single were the big offensive blows of the day. Right fielder Michael Ryan — a “real sleeper” in Scioscia’s eyes — had another superb game with a diving catch in right center and a double, RBI single and walk for a perfect day at the plate.
Bobby Abreu was a right field scratch, giving Ryan the start, as rain delayed the game’s start and created damp conditions. – Lyle Spencer
Kendry Morales made his spring debut on Monday at Surprise Stadium and picked up right where he left off last season — banging base-hits and driving in runs.
Morales singled home a run during a two-run first inning and singled home another in the fifth as the Angels erupted for four runs.
The reigning AL West champs saved their best offensive performance of the young spring for their division rivals, the Rangers, who were showing off new DH Vladimir Guerrero.
Maicer Izturis singled to right twice to send leadoff man Erick Aybar scurrying to third after a walk and single. Juan Rivera hammered a pair of run-producing hits, a single and double, and the big thunder came from Mike Napoli and Brandon Wood. Napoli launched one to dead center, his second homer of the spring, and Wood’s first hit landed on the grass beyond the 379 sign in right center.
Scott Kazmir, slowed by a sore right hamstring he brought into camp, will pitch two innings in an intrasquad game on Wednesday. The plan, if that goes well, is to get him to 45 pitches in a Cactus League game five days later.
Torii Hunter hopes to be able to play alongside Hideki Matsui, in his Angels debut as the DH, on Tuesday when the Padres send towering Chris Young to the mound at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Hunter felt a twinge in the area of his surgically repaired right groin on his first slide of the spring on Friday against the Rockies on a double.
“Right now, there’s no sense of urgency,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He’ll play tomorrow, and if not tomorrow, a matter of days. We’re not concerned with him. If it was March 28, it’d be another story.”
Kevin Jepsen (tender right shoulder) and Scot Shields (knee surgery recovery) are down to throw 15 pitches each in simulated games on Tuesday. Fernando Rodney (sore shins) is progressing in bullpen sessions, Scioscia said. – Lyle Spencer
PHOENIX – Angels fans visiting Tempe Diablo Stadium on Friday were treated to a sneak preview of potential coming attractions at Angel Stadium.
Trevor Reckling and Tyler Chatwood, back to back, put on impressive displays, going two innings each against the Rockies. Reckling allowed a run while striking out three men, and Chatwood yielded two hits in two scoreless innings.
Reckling, a lefty from New Jersey, has star qualities and is mature beyond his years. He’ll be 21 on May 22, and it appears as if he’s on the fast track to the big time.
The Angels’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2009, Reckling has a delivery quirky enough to disrupt hitters’ timing, and he unleashes mid-90s fastballs along with a big bender and a quality changeup. As his command improves, he’ll move closer to The Show.
“It felt good being out there,” said Reckling, a steal in the eighth round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. “I thought I had pretty good stuff and made some good pitches. It’s always a challenge facing big league hitters, and I’m trying to make the best of my opportunities.”
Chatwood, the club’s second-round choice in 2008, is entering his third professional season at 20. By 2012 or 2013, the kid from Redlands, due east from Angel Stadium, could be joining Reckling in the Angels’ rotation.
Chatwood grew up in Redlands, about an hour east of Angel Stadium. His tool kit, Like Reckling’s, is loaded with sharp instruments. Unimposing physically at 6-foot and 185 pounds, he has adopted as role models two pretty fair righties who make up for physical stature with talent and production: Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt.
“Those were the guys I was looking at when I started pitching my junior year [at Redlands High School] – mostly Lincecum,” Chatwood said. “I was a position player my whole life before I began pitching seriously as a senior.”
He’d undergone Tommy John surgery for a loose ligament in his right elbow at age 15, having pitched one inning while he was in the process of making a U.S. national team as a third baseman in a tryout in Phoenix.
His sophomore year was wiped out by the surgery, and he got a feel for pitching as a junior before putting it all together in his senior year, drawing the attention of Angels scouts.
Drafted in the second round in 2008, he has put together two solid Minor League seasons and needs only to develop his changeup and find consistent command to make a major jump.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia said he was impressed with the way Reckling and Chatwood attacked hitters with their live arms and attitudes against the Rockies.
“They weren’t scared,” Scioscia said.
Anxious, maybe, but not afraid to take a big step toward their eventual destination.
Early March Cactus League games are about the process, not results. It’s more about how you feel than how you do, unless you’re trying to catch a manager’s eye.
Accordingly, Brian Fuentes accomplished what he set out to do in his spring debut on Friday at Tempe Diablo Stadium during a 7-5 loss to Colorado.
Entering in the third inning against his former club, Fuentes struck out the first man he faced, Ryan Spilborghs. He walked Troy Tulowitzki and yielded a single to Ian Stewart for a first-and-third situation. Miguel Olivo went down for a breaking ball and hit it to the wall in left for an RBI double.
After striking out Matt Miller, Fuentes’ day ended.
Not bad, not great. A good day’s work, which is exactly what the Angels’ closer had in mind.
“For me, I just want to show I’m healthy and throwing pitches where I want to, and for the most part I did that,” Fuentes said. “I did walk a man and started falling behind and made a bad pitch to Stewart, a breaking ball that stayed up. But the breaking ball to Olivo was a good pitch, down, and he hit it to the wall. I’m all right with that.
“I moved the fastball around and put pitches where I needed to, so it was a good day.”
It could have been a lot worse. Fuentes could have been stuck in traffic for more than three hours like Rockies starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who didn’t reach the ballpark until the game was underway because of a wreck on I-10.
“I didn’t move forever,” said Jimenez, who chose to drive on his own and not take the team bus. “I left [Tucson] at 9 and got here at 1:30.”
Jimenez entered in the fourth and worked two innings, yielding four earned runs on two walks and three hits while striking out three men.
Fuentes, meanwhile, was throwing more off-speed stuff than is his custom this early in the spring. He feels he has plenty of time to find his fastball command.
“I never really push it too hard in the spring,” he said. “No matter how many bullpens you have, you don’t have the same arm strength. I had two batting practices and three bullpens under my felt.”
Fuentes endured back spasms that set him back last spring, but he found his rhythm after a rocky start and led the Majors with 48 saves in 55 opportunities.
“I try not to base it on results and numbers,” he said, referring to his springtime evaluations. “Do you feel healthy or not? That’s all I focus on now.”
Fernando Rodney, who closed for Detroit last season and brings his heat to the Angels’ bullpen as a free agent, was cleared on Friday to begin throwing bullpen sessions after experiencing soreness in both shins.
“We haven’t discussed it yet,” Fuentes said when asked about how Rodney will fit along with Scot Shields, Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger in the back of a deep bullpen. “My personal opinion is having Fernando in the back of the bullpen is a good thing. I saw him in Detroit, and he’s thrown lights out.
“From the outside looking in, it’s good to have him.”
Angels manager Mike Scioscia has made it clear Fuentes is his closer, and that Rodney and Shields occasionally will spell him in the ninth inning when he needs a breather.
“His arm speed was good, his arm slot was good,” Scioscia said when asked about Fuentes. “He had good stuff. He threw a lot of pitches, 27, 28, and we didn’t want him getting in the 35-pitch range. That was a full workout for him.”
Angels starter Sean O’Sullivan yielded five earned runs on four hits and a walk while getting four outs, but prospects Trevor Reckling and Tyler Chatwood had impressive debuts. Each worked two innings, Chatwood holding the Rockies scoreless while Reckling yielded a run while striking out three hitters.
“Sully had a tough start,” Scioscia said, “but I thought our younger pitchers — Chatwood, Reckling — you could see the life in their arms. They weren’t scared. They went right after guys.”
Offensively, Maicer Izturis (two walks, single) had a perfect day leading off, and Terry Evans stroked a pair of singles, driving in a run. Mark Trumbo slammed an opposite-field double to open the ninth inning, and Michael Ryan drove in a pair of runs with a single and had a lenghty at-bat to prolong the ninth before the Rockies nailed down the win.
The news of the day involved Fernando Rodney, the hard-throwing right-hander signed to a two-year, $11 million free-agent deal over the winter. Rodney, experiencing soreness in his shins, has been cleared to start throwing off the mound.
“Really good news,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
That means all the club’s pitchers are now able to get their work in as Scioscia begins to formulate plans for a variety of power arms aligned in the bullpen.
The entertainment news came in the form of the Harlem Globetrotters, who put on an exhibition of sorts for Angels players behind closed doors in their daily morning meeting.
The Trotters accepted an invitation by Torii Hunter, who plans to don a uniform when the world-famous outfit performs in the area on Friday night.
“Bobby Abreu is involved in the ownership of a Venezuean basketball team,” Scioscia said. “We said we’ve got some guys who want to try out for his team.”
And here came six Globetrotters to do their matchless magic act on the floor of the clubhouse, to the delight of 60 players, a group of coaches and executives and one beaming manager.
“It was great,” Scioscia said.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s workout at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Angels manager Mike Scioscia held an impromptu hitting contest among his catchers.
With Scioscia serving up soft tosses, the receivers took their cuts. The prize for longest drive went, not surprisingly, to Mike Napoli when he unloaded a towering drive to left that bounced off a truck passing by on an access road beyond the trees at the back of an embankment.
“Nap killed it,” Scioscia said.
“He must not have gotten the memo,” Napoli said of the truck driver.
“Imagine what that guy was thinking,” Bobby Wilson said, “just driving by and then he hears something crash.”
Napoli, who said he hasn’t felt this good in the spring since his rookie year of 2006, is crushing balls in batting practice. Best buddy Jeff Mathis, meanwhile, is lashing line drives to all fields, hoping to maintain the stroke he carried through the postseason with five doubles among his seven hits in 12 at-bats.
Wilson also went deep against his manager, while Ryan Budde — arguably the team’s strongest individual — unloaded several bombs.
Scioscia routinely begins the day with a pre-game address that features a wide range of hilarious exchanges, usually involving young players asked to make unusual presentations. Roars can be heard outside the clubhouse on a daily basis, but the audience is sworn to secrecy.
What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse.
The Kendry Morales watch continued on Monday as the Angels went through a workout under sunny skies following a dark, drizzly Sunday.
“Kendry was expected over the weekend,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “We expect him any hour, any day. Hopefully, we’re going to see him in camp in the next couple days.”
Morales is awaiting the stamp of approval from U.S. lmmigration on his green card, Scioscia has been told. In the meantime, the first baseman is said to be working out in Arizona.
Otherwise, things seem to be going swimmingly for the three-time reigning AL West champs. Hideki Matsui has fit in seamlessly, seated right next to lightning-rod Torii Hunter in the clubhouse, and Scioscia likes what he’s seen from his pitchers in bullpen sessions and batting-practice efforts.
“Our arms look good,” he said.
The Angels will have a 5 1/2-inning intrasquad game on Wednesday at Tempe Diablo Stadium to tune up for their Cactus League debut on Thursday at home against the White Sox at 3:05 p.m. MT. (2:05 p.m.). All other home games will be held at 1:05 p.m. MT, 12:05 p.m. PT.
Scioscia hasn’t decided on a starting pitcher for the spring opener.