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.
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.”
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.
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.
Angels second baseman Howard Kendrick was a late scratch from the Angels’ lineup on Sunday against the Dodgers with cramping in his left hamstring. Chone Figgins was moved from third base to second, with Robb Quinlan inserted at third base.
Hamstrings raise instant red flags with Kendrick, who was limited to 92 games last season by two trips to the disabled list for a strained left hamstring — April 14 to May 29 and Aug. 28 to Sept. 21.
Figgins has been almost exclusively a third baseman this season but has extensive experience at second and can make the transition seamlessly.
Quinlan, who had been struggling offensively, is coming off his best game of the season, delivering a double and two singles in four at-bats in Saturday night’s 5-4 loss in 10 innings.
“I’m trying to get my swing back to where I had it in the spring,” Quinlan said. “It felt a lot better last night. Hatch [hitting coach Mickey Hatcher] is helping me get it back. In Seattle, everything was by me. My timing wasn’t there. It just wasn’t pretty, the two games I played there. Sometimes it takes a little time. We’re going in the right direction.”
Quinlan’s start at third is his first of the season. He has made four starts at first base and one in right field, along with three as a DH. Figgins is making his first start at second this season, having started 40 of 42 games at third.
Kendrick has made 37 starts at second, with Maicer Izturis getting five starts there. Izturis has lower back stiffness, manager Mike Scioscia said, but should be available if needed.
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.