ANAHEIM – Heading into his first Major League All-Star Game at Angel Stadium, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips pointed to his brother, an Angels prospect, as his inspiration.
P.J. Phillips, a second-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, suffered a shoulder injury during Spring Training and is on the disabled list. He is on the Class A Rancho Cucamonga roster.
“This is for my younger brother, P.J.,” said Phillips, who leads the National League in runs scored with 66 and is hitting .294 at the break as one of four Reds playing in the Midsummer Classic. “I dedicate all my success to my brother. He’s really meant a lot to me. You never know what happens.”
A middle infielder when he drafted and signed out of Redan High School in Stone Mountain, Ga., P.J. was playing center field this spring when he damaged the shoulder in a collision.
“He dove for a ball in the outfield,” Brandon said, “and the right fielder hit him and flipped him over. He broke his shoulder, the rotator cuff. It was pretty bad, but he’s a strong guy. He’ll come back.”
An All-Star in 2007 for low Class A Cedar Rapids, P.J. Phillips, a superb athlete, spent the past two seasons at advanced Class A Rancho Cucamonga in the California League. He batted .276 in ’08 but fell to .233 last season. He’s 23, 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds. — 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.”
As he was packing his bag at Yankee Stadium late Sunday night, a long season over, Gary Matthews Jr. looked up and said, “It’s time.”
It was not the first time he’d said this, and his meaning was clear. It’s time, in Matthews’ mind, to move on. Time to find a place where he can play center field every day and take full advantage of his multiple skills at age 35.
Tired of being a fifth wheel in the Angels’ outfield, Matthews desperately wants to wear a new uniform with two years remaining on a five-year deal that brought him $50 million after his 2006 All-Star season in Texas.
He thinks there are teams that can see what he has to offer, and he hopes something can be done to make it happen. The $23 million owed him complicates the situation, but there are possible fits with clubs that have high-priced contracts they could move in exchange for a versatile switch-hitter who can play high-caliber center field.
Matthews had one superb half in ’07, leading off and batting cleanup and making all the plays in center, before a knee injury set him back and forced him to end his season in civvies while the Angels were getting swept by Boston in the ALDS.
They went out and acquired Torii Hunter that winter, a move not even Matthews could criticize. A smart baseball guy, having grown up in the game with a slugging father, Gary Sr., he understands Hunter’s tremendous value on and off the field. It just happened that Torii is one of the elite players in the game at Matthews’ natural position.
Life as a backup role player has been unfulfilling for the son of Sarge.
Matthews had a nice little run this season when Hunter was sidelined for a month with a groin injury sustained banging into outfield walls. During that time, Matthews was renewed, emotionally and physically, and it showed in his performance.
Carrying the momentum of a strong June finish, the Angels were 17-9 in July with Hunter missing all but seven games. During one memorable stretch with Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero both sidelined, the Angels were 17-3.
The Angels were 32-13 with Matthews starting in center field, and he batted a robust .358 with runners in scoring position, when his competitive juices were flowing.
Those numbers might be a more accurate reflection of what he can do than his pedestrian .250 batting average, .361 slugging and .336 on-base numbers for the full season, with an irregular work load.
It took him a while to find his stroke after Hunter went on the shelf, but once he did, Matthews carried it to the finish with strong performances in August (.290 average, .452 slugging, .389 on-base percentage) and September/October (.286/.457/.444, respectively).
His play in center field is far superior to what he does in left and right, where he struggles at times with the hooks, slices and angles. In center, Matthews ranks among the top third in the game in the studied view of Hunter, the master.
Teams with needs in center should seriously explore taking on a player who has plenty of game left and a hunger to show what he can do.
This certainly isn’t anywhere near the top of the Angels’ winter agenda, with seven free agent cases to weigh along with eight arbitration-eligible players to satisfy. But at some point, dealing with Matthews – and dealing him in a mutually satisfying manner – would seem to be the right thing to do.
Ichiro is as hip, stylish and in step with the times as any player in Major League Baseball, even if he doesn’t express it in fluent English.
Before the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium last season, Ichiro willingly gave me a brief taste of hip-hop. I’m no music critic – although I did once review a Bruce Springsteen concert for the late, lamented Los Angeles Herald Examiner — but it sounded dead on to me.
“Ichiro is as cool as it gets, man,” Reds manager Dusty Baker had told me. “He’ll bust out some Snoop on you.”
The Mariners’ superstar, alone at his locker in the ancient home clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, was just starting to feel it before I was ushered away, deprived of more Ichiro unplugged by pre-game time constraints.
Now here he is, on the verge of reaching 200 hits for the ninth consecutive season, meaning every season he’s played in the Major Leagues of this country. We’re fortunate that it could happen here, at Angel Stadium, because this is a performer to savor, one for the ages.
As contemporary as he is on every level, Ichiro, more than any other current player, takes us back to another time, another century.
If you’re younger than dirt and would be curious to know what Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, greats of those early times, played like, Ichiro is your ticket.
He slaps and dashes. He laces line drives everywhere. He runs as if swept by a quiet storm. He makes difficult plays routine and has a cannon for an arm. I’ll never forget the throw he made his rookie year to erase Oakland’s Terrence Long trying to reach third base on a single. I was thinking, that’s Clemente, Roberto Clemente.
Ichiro has pounded out and beat out his singles on wonderful teams (2001) and dismal ones. He has been as consistent as the weather in the Pacific Northwest. You know it’s going to rain base hits when this guy is on the field.
Ichiro is much like Pete Rose in that way, without the fury. Ichiro is a better hitter than Rose was, with all due respect, and much faster. Defensively, it’s no contest. Ichiro is among the best ever; Pete took his talents to physical limits that never constrained Ichiro.
If Pete was Charlie Hustle – and he was – Ichiro is Mr. Cool, in any language.
Seattle likely will finish no better than third in the American League West this season, but it led the division in legends with Ichiro and Ken Griffey Jr. The Mariners also own perhaps the game’s most gifted young pitcher in Felix Hernandez, who takes his place right alongside Tim Lincecum.
Griffey has been, in my judgment, the player of his generation. Nobody ever had more fun playing the game than The Kid, and nobody ever was more fun to watch.
Ichiro Suzuki has been simply unique. His value can be measured with statistics that will carry him to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but there’s never been a number that defines style and class packaged in the one dynamic frame.
I’ll settle for No. 51, the one worn by the great Ichiro, a blazing star for several continents and all time.
Justin Speier, the Angels’ veteran right-handed reliever, has been handed his unconditional release to make room on the 25-man roster for Trevor Bell, the 22-year-old right-hander who makes his Major League debut on Wednesday against the Rays.
Speier, signed to a free agent contract with the Angels after the 2006 season, was 4-2 with a 5.18 ERA this season in 41 appearances. He pitched 40 innings, yielding 44 hits and 15 walks while striking out 39 batters. Opponents had a .277 batting average against him.
“It probably caught him off guard,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins said. “It’s emotional. There was nothing but professionalism in the way he took it on short notice. He has sincere passion for this organization, and the feelings are mutual.
“You always hope a player continues his career and gets an opportunity. We know he wants to continue to pitch. He’s going to take a breather.”
Speier, 35, is the son of long-time Major League shortstop Chris Speier, now a coach on manager Dusty Baker’s staff in Cincinnati.
Speier began his Major League career in 1998 after he was taken in the 55th round of the 1995 First-Year Player Draft by the Cubs. He pitched for the Marlins, Braves, Indians, Rockies and Blue Jays before joining the Angels.
He’s 35-33 in his career in 613 Major League appearances.
“We felt from a baseball standpoint this decision at this time was the right decision to make,” Reagins said. “It’s something we’ve talked about for several days. It’s always a difficult decision when you have to go this route.
“From a baseball standpoint, it was something we felt that had to be done to allow us to do some other things.”
Bell gives the Angels two rookie starting pitchers, joining Sean O’Sullivan, with Joe Saunders on the disabled list. Middle relievers Matt Palmer and Shane Loux also are candidates to join the rotation, having had some success in that role.
The Angels overrate their prospects. If that’s what you’re hearing or reading in the wake of their inability to swing a non-waiver Trade Deadline deal for a four-star pitcher, you don’t necessarily have to buy it.
I mean, seriously, how do you overrate prospects who have helped you win more games over the past 4 ½ seasons than any other team in Major League Baseball? That doesn’t make much sense.
You’d think lesser clubs would want to latch onto some of those kids who have helped drive manager Mike Scioscia’s troupe to 438 wins, heading into this six-game road trip, against 309 losses since the start of the 2005 season. Next best: Yankees, at 436-313, then the Red Sox, at 429-318.
Not bad, as company goes.
You’d think clubs languishing on the fringes of contention would welcome the opportunity to import some of this talent from an organization that plays aggressive, exciting, winning baseball from rookie ball on up.
Without full knowledge of what was offered and what was rejected, my sense is the Angels put together some very fair proposals – particularly for Roy Halladay and Heath Bell – and, for whatever reason, were simply rejected.
Maybe Toronto didn’t really want to part with Halladay. Maybe San Diego couldn’t live without Bell, when it was all said and done. I don’t know. But I have been around Angels players now long enough, organization-wide, to appreciate their skill, intelligence and will.
If Erick Aybar was a deal-breaker with Toronto, I’m good with that. He’s on his way to greatness, and Angels fans will be dazzled by his many gifts for years to come.
This whole business of desperately needing No. 1 starters to win in the postseason is an urban myth. If you’re looking for something that’s overrated, here it is. I don’t recall the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati needing a hand full of aces.
The Angels didn’t have a No. 1 in the classic mold in 2002. The Athletics had three legit No. 1s – Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson – that season and couldn’t win a postseason series. The Braves had three certified No. 1s – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz — for a full decade. They claimed one Fall Classic.
Dominant starting pitching is great, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not a be-all, cure-all, end-all. It guarantees nothing.
Here’s what matters in October: momentum. Positive, upbeat, driving momentum generated by quality play, good pitching and a dash of good fortune here and there.
It looks wide open this season, from this laptop. The Angels have a shot at going all the way if things fall into place. They’re due for a break or two in October.
Halladay absolutely would have been a terrific addition. But not at the cost of the heart of your club.
As for Bell, he’s a shiny Cadillac parked in a dark garage. Would he have helped the Angels? Sure. But they might end up getting more production out of the players the Padres didn’t seem to want.
Who knows? Crazy stuff happens all the time. It’s baseball. Nobody is nearly as smart as he or she claims to be.