There are so many things to respect and admire about the Angels. Here are some that leap to mind in the afterglow of one of the franchise’s greatest triumphs:
The tireless commitment of Torii Hunter, who represents every day, in every way. A guy couldn’t have a better teammate. When you play with Torii, you know he’s got your back, without hesitation, no questions asked.
The quiet assurance and endearing presence of Bobby Abreu, who walked into a new room and won it over from day one with his style, elegance, humor and wisdom. I had no idea he was this good a player and this brand of leader. If the Angels can’t keep him, they’ll be losing much more than hits, walks, RBIs, runs and steals. They’ll be losing a whole lot of class.
The unique greatness of Vladimir Guerrero. He seems oddly undervalued and underappreciated in this era where so much value is attached to working counts. Sure, he takes some wild swings. But he has been one of the most feared and productive hitters of this or any era, and it was so sweet to see him deliver at the big moment on Sunday – right after Abreu, a clutch hitter with few peers, came through.
The astounding athleticism of Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar on the left side of the infield. It doesn’t get any better than this. Figgins and Aybar have more range and stronger arms than any left-side combo in the past 35 years.
That’s how long I’ve been covering the sport – too long, some would say – and I’ve never seen a better third-base coach than Dino Ebel. He does his homework, knows every outfield arm in the game, stays on top of every possibility and rarely makes a bad decision.
The way Figgins keeps improving, simply by being so dedicated. He is totally immersed in the game, driven to succeed. He struggled finding hits against the Red Sox – Jacoby Ellsbury robbed him of what would have been an inside-the-park homer – but Figgy worked a huge walk against Jonathan Papelbon during the big rally and has a history of delivering in New York. As with Abreu, Figgins’ many gifts would be hard to replace as he ventures into free agency.
Jered Weaver’s emergence as a sturdy, dependable top-of-the-rotation starter, smart, resourceful and – most of all – extremely tough under duress. He learned his lessons well from John Lackey, his mentor.
Lackey’s true grit.
The style and competitive natures of lefties Joe Saunders and Scott Kazmir. Kazmir’s arrival on Aug. 28 from Tampa Bay made this team complete. He’s a keeper.
The very real and productive mutual respect catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli continue to display. In another environment, this could be a toxic situation, but these guys have been so close for so long, nothing could pull them apart – not even competition over who catches which pitcher and how often.
Along those same lines, the way Maicer Izturis and Howard Kendrick have handled their second-base platoon with such uncommon grace. Both are everyday players and know it, but they’ve created not a single ripple of discontent over sharing a job.
Kendry Morales’ intelligence. By wisely taking advice from his elders (Abreu, Mickey Hatcher) and controlling his aggression, he turned all that potential into production and accomplished the impossible in making fans get over Mark Teixeira’s loss.
Young relievers Jason Bulger and Kevin Jepsen holding up under a heavy workload and holding it together in front of Brian Fuentes.
Fuentes: 50 saves. How can you not appreciate that? He might not be a prototypical closer with premium gas, but the guy gets outs, and that’s the whole idea, right?
The strength and consistency of Juan Rivera, a rock-solid left fielder, and the manner in which Gary Matthews Jr. handled his very difficult role – and came through repeatedly in the clutch.
The enduring cool of Darren Oliver. Nothing rattles this guy. A pro’s pro.
The way Ervin Santana retained his humor while searching for the right stuff to come back after elbow issues made for some long nights.
The big, good-natured manner of Matt Palmer, who came out of nowhere to deliver much-needed innings and wins and went so respectfully to the bullpen, embracing any role handed him. Nobody appreciates wearing a big-league uniform more than this guy.
The willingness of Robb Quinlan, Reggie Willits, Brandon Wood and Bobby Wilson to do whatever is needed to bring their team closer to a win. Even if it’s not something that will show up in a boxscore.
Shane Loux, Dustin Moseley, Kelvim Escobar and Justin Speier, who did their part until they parted, and and all the young pitchers who helped stitch this crazy-quilt pitching staff together over the long haul.
The inner strength of Mike Scioscia, who navigated the most turbulent of waters this season with remarkable calm. Manager of the Year, no doubt. Manager of the Decade? Absolutely.
The dedication of coaches Hatcher, Ron Roenicke, Mike Butcher, Alfredo Griffin, Ebel, Orlando Mercado and Steve Soliz. Wise is the manager who surrounds himself with strong, independent thinkers willing to put in long hours for the greater good.
The way everyone mourned respectfully and continually honored the memory of Nick Adenhart, one of the best and brightest, gone much, much too soon.
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.”
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.
Vladimir Guerrero, like fellow cleanup man Alex Rodriguez from the other side, was given a day off on Wednesday as the Angels and Yankees got together in the bright sunlight of Angels Stadium for their final regular-season date.
They could meet again in October, and if that happens, neither Guerrero nor A-Rod will be skipping any at-bats or innings. With a scheduled day off on Thursday, Guerrero gets two days off his feet, which ought to restore some life in his legs.
“Just a day [off],” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of his designated hitter, who is batting .299 (with 15 homers and 47 RBIs in 91 games) in his quest to reach .300 for a 13th consecutive season. “He’ll be ready on Friday [against Oakland].
“He’s played a long time with a lot of swings. You can talk about DHing, and obviously it’s not as demanding as playing in the field. But there’s still a lot that goes into what a guy has to do. Especially since he’s been dealing with leg issues, which put him on the DL the second time.”
Bobby Abreu was in the DH spot against A.J. Burnett, with Gary Matthews Jr. getting a start in right field.
Guerrero, who had right knee surgery last October, opened the season with a torn pectoral muscle that cost him 35 games when it was diagnosed on April 18. He returned on May 25 and sustained a strained lower right hamstring, in the upper calf area, making a play in right field, putting him back on the DL from July 8 to Aug. 4.
A total of 56 lost games cost him a realistic shot at his 12th consecutive season with at least 25 homers and a .300-plus batting average. He’s with Lou Gehrig as the only players ever to do that 11 years in succession.
In the past 50 years, only Tony Gwynn and Rod Carew, spray hitters with speed, managed to bat at least .300 for at least 12 seasons in a row, a streak Guerrero started in 1997 on Montreal’s carpet.
One more historical reference point underscores how truly unique this man has been in his amazing career. With a .322 career average and 407 home runs, Guerrero is in a club of six with Jimmie Foxx, Gehrig, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams at .320-plus and 400-plus.
Someday, Vlad will join the legends in Cooperstown, N.Y., home of immortals.
The insiders and media sharks were swirling around Angels left fielder Juan Rivera on Thursday, taking him to task for not diving full-tilt for the pop fly by Alex Gonzalez that dropped in fair territory in shallow left field on Wednesday night at Fenway Park.
Gonzalez’s bases-loaded single gave the Red Sox a controversy-riddled 9-8 win, coming after Nick Green had walked on a full-count, forcing home the tying run, after the Angels felt Brian Fuentes had him struck out twice, on a checked swing and again on a 3-2 fastball at the knees and over the middle of the plate.
Rivera didn’t have much to say about it, other than, “I didn’t think I could catch it.” He went to a few teammates to see what they thought and found support.
Emphatic, unyielding affirmation came from outfield coach Ron Roenicke, manager Mike Scioscia’s bench coach.
“I saw the replay,” said Roenicke, a former Major League outfielder known for his defensive skills. “He’s not going to catch that ball. So he pulled up.
“When you go for a ball and know you can’t catch it in your mind, you pull up. I don’t want them to dive for a ball if they know they can’t get it and get hurt. From what I saw, he wasn’t going to catch it.”
Rivera didn’t appear to be playing as shallow as center fielder Torii Hunter or right fielder Bobby Abreu, but the Green Monster can distort perspectives.
“We’re playing shallow,” Roenicke said. “We were in a little bit.”
Scioscia was asked if he considered removing Rivera – who’d gone 3-for-5 with a two-run double putting the Angels in front in the seventh — for defensive purposes with the Angels leading by a run going into the bottom of the ninth. Reggie Willits and Gary Matthews Jr. would have been options.
“Vlad [Guerrero] was already out of the game [with a bruised rib cage after getting hit by a pitch], and Juan’s swinging the bat well,” Scioscia said. “Juan is comfortable out there.
“He went after it hard. If he thought he could have dived and caught it, he would. Didn’t think he had a chance.”
Rivera has had a solid season defensively in left, making several game-saving catches and unleashing strong, accurate throws with consistency.
Some outfielders, Roenicke said, are less comfortable diving full-tilt.
“Juan plays hard,” Roenicke said. “If he thought he’d have caught it, he’d have come after it. I’ve never seen him prone dive. I’ve seen him slide into a wall for a catch. Torii will dive forward, but there are not many guys who will dive forward.”
Roenicke said Rivera had not asked him about the play but anticipated that he would – and the coach’s support would be forthcoming.
Torii Hunter always knows when he’s in Boston’s glorious old ballpark. His left ankle lets him know.
“Every time I come here,” Hunter said before Tuesday night’s series opener against the Red Sox at Fenway Park, “my ankle hurts. It remembers this place.”
What his ankle recalls is a terrible accident in the triangle in right center on July 29, 2005. Pursuing a long drive by his former Twins teammate and good buddy David Ortiz, Hunter got his ankle caught in the wall. The ankle was fractured, causing him immense pain and costing him the final two months of the season.
“It was nasty, man, really bad,” Hunter said.
The ugly incident came to his mind on Monday night when the eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove center fielder lost his left shoe trying to stab a drive by the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira – it’s something about former teammates and friends – at Yankee Stadium.
After the game, Hunter jokingly referred to himself as “Shoeless Torii.” But he understood how fortunate he’d been to shed the cleat on impact.
“It’s a good thing the shoe stuck in the padding and came off,” Hunter said. “If it had stayed on, the way my foot hit the wall . . . I don’t even want to think about what might have happened.”
That painful incident remains clear in his head, but it hasn’t all been bad for Hunter in Beantown. He actually has hit extremely well in Fenway Park: .327 for his career with eight homers in 220 at-bats, .361 last season with three homers in 36 at-bats.
Hunter also delivered handsomely in his biggest at-bat of his first season with the Angels. It was his dramatic two-out, two-run single against Justin Masterson in the eighth inning that brought the Angels even in Game 4 of the American League Division Series. Teixeira and Vladimir Guerrero scored on Hunter’s bullet, his third hit in 10 at-bats at Fenway in the series.
The Red Sox rocked the Angels with a run in the bottom of the ninth, claiming a 3-2 triumph that arranged an AL Championship Series showdown with the Rays.
The season over, Hunter found no solace in his own performance, batting .389 for the series to lift his career postseason average to .316 (along with a .510 slugging percentage) in 25 playoff games.
“I really thought we were going all the way,” he said that night, despair everywhere in the ancient clubhouse.
With renewed hope in the air, the Angels are back at Fenway. There’s a strong chance they’ll revisit the yard next month, once again as AL West champions facing the Wild Card Sox in Games 3 and 4, if necessary, of the ALDS.
Hunter, who has arrived as a rare six-tool player this season with his immensely popular blog on MLB.com, can’t wait for the big date, if it’s in the stars.
Here’s a guy who can hit for average, for power, run, field, throw – and write.
“Read all about it,” Hunter said, beaming.
Kendry Morales, MVP candidate.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia came out firmly in support of his first baseman in the American League’s Most Valuable Player derby,
“Absolutely no doubt,” Scioscia said when asked about Morales’ candidacy. “Look at his individual stats, what he’s meant to his team. [If you] look at what Kendry has meant to his club opposed to what other players have meant to their club, the only guy [in that category] is Joe Mauer in Minnesota.”
Scioscia alluded to Mark Teixeira, the man Morales has replaced at first base for the Angels, as a strong candidate as well. But Teixeira will likely get stiff competition from venerable Derek Jeter for MVP sentiment (and votes) on the East Coast.
As for Morales, batting .314 with 30 homers and 94 RBIs in his first full season as a regular, the campaign is getting a late start.
“It seems word travels from West to East a little slower in the game of baseball,” Scioscia said. “But I think the world of baseball knows what he’s meant to our club.”
With 274 total bases, Morales has 58 more than the next highest Angels hitter, Juan Rivera. Morales’ .598 slugging percentage trails only Mauer’s .615 in the AL, and the Cuban-born switch-hitter also is second in extra-base hits with 68.
While he’s not yet at Teixeira’s level defensively, Morales has improved by leaps and bounds with the glove, playing with visibly higher confidence as the season progresses.
Morales is coming off the best month of his career, making himself a strong candidate for AL Player of the Month for August. He batted .385, leading the league with his .734 slugging percentage and 33 RBIs while trailing only the Rays’ Tony Pena in homers with 10. Pena had 12.
By now, it would seem, pitchers would have found any serious flaws in Morales’ offensive game.
“It’s one thing figuring out what a hitter’s hole is and matching it with the pitcher’s ability to go out and [exploit] it,” Scioscia said. “Kendry’s at the stage where he’s had enough at-bats [502 plate appearances] that pitchers have an idea of his strengths, the things he can do.
“I don’t think there are a lot of secrets with what pitchers are trying to do with Kendry. Good hitters are going to have holes that are very small.”
Scioscia lifted Morales into the No. 5 hole in the order, dropping Rivera one spot, on Tuesday night against right-hander Doug Fister. This prevents righties from seeing three right-handed bats in succession: Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero and Rivera.
“Kendry is in a good spot to hit behind Vlad and also to break up some of the righties,” Scioscia said. “We’ll tinker with some things. The way Kendry’s swinging, it’s nice to get him behind Vlad against right-handed pitchers.
“If you take Kendry out of our lineup, I think you’re looking at a different offense,” Scioscia said.
Brad Penny clearly would have value to the Angels if he clears waivers on Saturday when the 72-hour window for released players closes. The veteran right-hander was handed his release by the Red Sox on Thursday to open roster space for reliever Billy Wagner, acquired from the Mets in a waiver deal.
Penny, 31, signed a $5 million free-agent deal with the Red Sox, but he will not reach any of the bonus incentives for innings pitched. He was 7-8 in 24 starts and 131 2/3 innings for Boston with a 5.61 ERA. His bonuses in $500,000 increments were to kick in with 160 innings pitched.
Penny’s performance this season was a far cry from the back-to-back 16-win seasons he delivered for the Dodgers in 2006 and 2007. He started the ’06 All-Star Game for the National League in Pittsburgh – yielding a mammoth homer to Vladimir Guerrero – and was third in the ’07 NL Cy Young Award balloting after going 16-4 with a 3.03 ERA.
Eleven American League clubs would have a shot at claiming Penny before the Angels, whose record is surpassed only by the Yankees. With less than a quarter of the season remaining, he’d amount to a bargain-basement pickup at less than $100,000 with the Major League minimum at $400,000.
With the Angels going with young Trevor Bell in the fifth spot in the rotation, Penny would be a natural fit for the estimated six starts remaining. He’d have to sign by Monday to be eligible for a postseason roster spot, unless an injury opens space.
Penny certainly showed in 2003 with the Marlins that he didn’t mind postseason pressure, twice beating the Yankees in the World Series with a 2.13 ERA in his two outings.
Penny requested his release on Wednesday night.
“Because we ended up letting him go, our feelings don’t change about him personally,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “We really appreciated the way Brad went about his business. He was a good teammate, and he worked hard. We’re always pretty honest about the fact that we do what’s in the best interest of the organization and the team, and we try to tell the players that.”
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.
Vladimir Guerrero will make his return to the Angels lineup tonight against the White Sox as the designated hitter, batting in his customary cleanup spot between AL Player of the Month Bobby Abreu and Juan Rivera.
Catcher Bobby Wilson is being returned to Triple-A Salt Lake to make room for Guerrero on the 25-man roster.
Guerrero and Torii Hunter have been on the 15-day disabled list since July 10. The Angels were 17-3 with their customary 3-4 hitters out of the lineup.
Guerrero, sidelined with a strained muscle behind his left knee, is batting .290 with four homers and 21 RBIs.
Hunter, out with an adductor muscle strain on his right side, will need a little more time, manager Mike Scioscia said, because he’ll be in center field when he rejoins the lineup. Hunter could play a few Minor League rehab games this weekend to get ready.