In the ninth inning of Thursday night’s 4-3 win in Boston, as significant a victory as the Angels have produced this season in some respects, three September call-ups were on the field in support of Kevin Jepsen and Brian Fuentes – including the man calling the pitches, Bobby Wilson.
Reggie Willits was in left field, where Juan Rivera had opened the game, and Terry Evans was in right, which had been occupied by Gary Matthews Jr.
Willits dropped a perfect bunt to set up the winning run in the top of the ninth, scored by Evans as a pinch-runner, and Evans squeezed the final out.
Wilson blocked a few balls that could have been trouble and once again handled himself with confidence and poise at the most difficult position on the field.
“That’s big for guys like us,” said Evans, a graceful athletic with a lean but muscular frame, “to know they have the confidence to put us out there in a situation like that, a big game on the line. It gives us confidence, as well. It’s huge.”
Evans had another big year at Triple-A Salt Lake alongside Willits and Wilson, as well as Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Freddy Sandoval, Chris Pettit and the rest of the Bees’ formidable lineup. Evans, Wilson and Wood are out of options, meaning they’ll either be with the Angels next season or available to other clubs unless they’re included in deals.
“Anything we can do to contribute, we’re happy,” Evans said. “It can be the smallest thing. For us, that’s our role here. We have such a great lineup, we know what our roles are. And it’s exciting to get a chance to make any kind of contribution.”
Evans and Pettit have been used as pinch-runners late in games, freeing Willits for a role he is beginning to master: dropping a sacrifice bunt in conditions far more difficult than any casual fan would realize.
“It’s something he’s been great at, and it helps if they can hold him back for those spots,” Evans said. “Chris can run, and Freddy can run a little bit too. Reggie can do so many things, he’s a good guy to have around late in games. Plus, with Bobby catching, they can save [Mike] Napoli for pinch-hitting situations.”
Wilson has caught 11 innings this season, his pitchers yielding two earned runs. He made a game-saving, ninth-inning save of a ball in the dirt in Oakland when John Lackey (nine innings) and Fuentes combined for a 1-0 shutout in 10 innings.
Wilson was sent to Salt Lake after that Aug. 4 game, making it a bittersweet day.
“I love it any time I put on the gear and get a chance to play,” Wilson said. “We all want to be in there, and it was great that Terry, Reggie and I were all on the field together.”
“Especially,” a grinning Willits said, his bunt having set up Howard Kendrick’s game-winning single, “when we win.”
Evans had gone in to run for Rivera after his leadoff walk against Red Sox lefty Billy Wagner.
“With more bench strength, especially pinch-running,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, “it’s a way to infuse some speed into a situation. The baseball experience of the Major Leagues, cutting their baby teeth, is a big step for these younger players. September is important.”
Completing the Scott Kazmir deal, the Angels today sent infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez to the Rays. Tampa Bay previously had acquired left-handed pitching prospect Alex Torres and infielder Matt Sweeney.
Rodriguez, a Miami native, returns to Florida giving new manager Joe Maddon a variety of options. A center fielder in high school, Rodriguez has played primarily at second base for the Angels but showed in a brief opportunity in Minnesota in July that he can handle left field capably as well.
Playing two games at the Metrodome in left, Rodriguez had three hits, including a booming home run to center, while making several excellent plays.
Rodriguez batted .200 in 25 at-bats with the Angels this season, with two homers and four RBIs. He showed his power at Triple-A Salt Lake this season, batting .299 with 29 homers and 93 RBIs in 103 games. He ranked second in the Pacific Coast League in homers and slugging percentage (.616) and was tied for third in RBIs.
Kazmir is scheduled to make his Angels debut on Wednesday agianst the Mariners in Seattle.
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.
For the record, the Angels say nobody on their roster is untouchable. But Erick Aybar is about as close as it gets.
Staying healthy and in the lineup after missing chunks of the past two seasons with hand and hamstring injuries, the 25-year-old shortstop from Bani, Dominican Republic is emerging as one of the game’s most exciting young talents.
Aybar grew up wanting to be like Rafael Furcal, and he is getting there in a hurry by combining superb and consistent defense with a sizzling bat and blazing speed on the basepaths.
With extraordinary range and only five errors in 79 games, Aybar’s .986 fielding percentage is surpassed by only three regular Major League shortstops. He’s batting .316 overall and in the clutch, with a .355 on-base percentage that represents huge improvement over his .298 figure coming into the season.
As Angels general manager Tony Reagins engages in dialogue with other clubs as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches on Friday, Aybar is a popular topic.
You can ask for him, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get him.
Toronto apparently found that out when it demanded Aybar as part of a multi-player package in exchange for Roy Halladay. The Angels are believed to be maneuvering for the Indians’ Cliff Lee, but Aybar again could be a deal-breaker.
“It doesn’t affect me,” Aybar said on Tuesday night through Jose Mota’s translation. “I have a job to do. I can’t worry about my name being out there. It’s flattering teams want me, but it also makes me sad.”
He loves the team he’s with and the style it plays, which is perfectly suited to his skills. Manager Mike Scioscia realizes that there are few athletes in the game on Aybar’s level, having repeatedly expressed the view that Erick has star potential once he settles in and shows consistency with the bat and in the field.
Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Indians, Aybar was leading Angels regulars with his .316 average, ahead of Bobby Abreu (.314), Juan Rivera (.311), Chone Figgins (.309), Torii Hunter (.305) and Maicer Izturis (.300).
It’s a deep and formidable lineup, and when Aybar is linked with Figgins on the bases, it can be a show. You’d be hard-pressed to find two quicker, swifter baserunners in the same lineup. It calls to mind the St. Louis days when Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee ran circles around teams.
“I feel confident,” Aybar said. “One thing I don’t feel is complacent. It feels good to be playing at this level. It’s a lot of fun.”
With an embarrassment of middle-infield riches – Aybar, Izturis, Howard Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez – along with other assets, the Angels could swing a deal by the deadline for a big-time starter or veteran setup man in front of Brian Fuentes.
Just don’t expect Aybar to be part of it.
Jered Weaver looked at me, and this is what his astonished eyes said: “You’re crazy.”
He was right, of course, but that was beside the point.
It was Saturday afternoon in the Angels’ clubhouse, and a bright, new Kobe Bryant jersey was hanging next to Weaver’s locker. My mind started racing. Weaver loves the Lakers. Like Gary Matthews Jr. and Sean Rodriguez, two other big Lakers fans, Jered actually has listened, with sincere interest, to my tales of the amazing ’80s when I was traveling with Magic, Kareem and Co., the greatest show on Planet Sports.
Strictly spur of the moment, I ran an idea past Weaver, who was pitching what would turn out to be his first career shutout, against the Padres, the next day.
“Jered,” I said, “why don’t you put the jersey on before you go to the mound on Sunday – a show of support for your other team – and have one of the clubbies come running out to take it as you pulled it off and waved it to the crowd? The Lakers are playing after your game, so it would be a nice touch.
“It would make all the highlight shows,” I added, “but more than that, it would be a show of solidarity. I think the fans would love it.”
That’s when he gave me that look that told me I was crazy.
He probably couldn’t have gotten it past manager Mike Scioscia, anyway. Mike is a serious-minded guy who fully adheres to all the principles about respecting the game, and I appreciate that.
But the game also could use some color, some characters in addition to all that character. Some honest emotion, from deepest left field if necessary, wouldn’t hurt from time to time.
I told Weaver, as he stood there in amused disbelief over my suggestion, that it was my idea to have Detroit Tigers sensation Mark Fidrych speak to baseballs and manicure pitching mounds in the mid-1970s.
It was a complete lie, and he called me on it immediately. But I did know “The Bird” and spent one memorable night out with him in Detroit after he’d shut out the Angels.
That was the same night I sat beside Fidrych in the home dugout at old Tiger Stadium and watched about 50,000 people stay in their seats for 15 minutes after the game while “Bird” did a radio interview, a headset wrapped around his curly head of wild hair.
“What’s going on here?” I asked him, pointing to all the people who’d remained in the house after the game, just sitting there.
“Watch,” he said, grinning.
When the radio interview was over, he pulled off the headset jumped up on the dugout steps and waved to the crowd, which rose and cheered for at least a full minute before finally dispersing.
It remains to this day one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever witnessed, a stunning show of unbridled love for an athlete who clearly moved to his own beat and did pretty much what he felt like at all times, without regard for how critics would react.
I long for those old days, but they’re gone, gone, gone. So is Fidrych, who died in an accident not long after Nick Adenhart, another pitcher with uncommon talent, left us in this most distressing of baseball seasons.
Bird, I’m sure, would have put on that Kobe jersey, happily, without hesitation.
In fact, it would have been his idea.
It was a less structured, less controlled, less serious world back then.
I miss it terribly.
Brandon Wood is a natural shortstop who learned how to play third base capably. Now he is increasing his versatilty by another position, playing first base with remarkable dexterity for someone with no experience with the big glove.
This scouting report comes courtesy of Sean Rodriguez, who played alongside Wood in the Triple-A Salt Lake infield as recently as Friday night in Reno during an extra-inning game the Bees lost despite Wood going deep and driving in a pair of runs. Rodriguez, playing second, marveled at how quickly his buddy has adapted to another new position.
“Woody made some great plays down there,” Rodriguez said. “He went across his body to catch one throw that kept them from winning in regulation. The ball would have probably sailed into the stands, but Woody’s an athlete, and he showed it on that play.
“There was another ball headed for the hole, and I was on my way to try to make the play. But Woody got there first and got the out throwing to the pitcher covering. He was there in a heartbeat, man. That was a big-league play.
“He’s 6-3 with soft hands and quick feet. He’s a natural down there at first. But he’s a little concerned, I think, that people might start to think he’s not a shortstop. Believe me, he can play short in the big leagues. No question in my mind.”
Wood had two excellent performances for the Angels at third base, filling in for Chone Figgins, before getting sent to Salt Lake. The Angels won both those games, and Wood had a positive impact each time. He came up big against CC Sabathia in Yankee Stadium with a clutch hit igniting a decisive rally.
Wood carried a .333 average with one walk and two strikeouts in 10 plate appearances to the PCL. He’s batting .299 with 14 homers and 35 RBIs in 44 games. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) is .986.
Wood has made major strides in pitch recognition and plate discipline. How long the Angels can keep him down on the farm remains to be seen, but it’s increasingly baffling to a lot of people that a club that ranks last in the American League in homers and eighth in slugging can’t find a role for one of the premier power prospects in the game.
The focus has been on Vladimir Guerrero the past few days in his return from a torn pectoral muscle, but deeper struggles are ongoing with Mike Napoli and Howard Kendrick, two of the Angels’ most lethal offensive weapons.
Napoli, mired in a 1-for-24 slump, was not in the lineup on Saturday night. Jeff Mathis got the call behind the plate against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, a man Mathis has homered twice against.
Napoli was on fire in the designated hitter role, but a return to full-time catching has coincided with an offensive slumber. He lined out to center in his first at-bat on Friday night against lefty Jason Vargas before striking out twice and popping up.
Napoli’s average has fallen to .275 with six homers and 18 RBIs in 131 at-bats. Mathis is batting .229 and has 12 RBIs without a homer in 70 at-bats.
“Nap is a dangerous guy in that batter’s box,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “He can hit the ball out to all parts of the field, and he has a good eye. Right now, he’s just having a little trouble squaring up some pitches that he had been hitting.”
After showing signs of breaking out on the road trip to Texas, L.A. and Seattle, Kendrick is hitless in 11 at-bats on the homestand, his average plunging to 229. He came into the season with a .306 Major Leager batting average after hitting .360 in the Minor Leagues.
Maicer Izturis got the start at second after Kendrick grounded out twice and struck out on Friday night.
“It’s a little spotty,” Scioscia said of Kendrick’s progress. “At times it looks like he’s making some strides. And there are times he looks a little frustrated, trying to do too much with pitches rather than square it up. He’s working hard. It’s something Mickey [Hatcher] is paying attention to. Hopefully, some hits will start to fall.”
Meanwhile, in Triple-A Salt Lake, versatile Sean Rodriguez is getting a lot of hits to fall — more than a few landing beyond walls. He has 17 homers and 50 RBIs with a .280 average through 46 games, slugging at a .652 clip.
“Sean started slowly, but he’s been putting some great swings on the ball,” Angels reliever Rich Thompson said, having played alongside Rodriguez in Salt Lake before getting called to Anaheim. “I’ve seen Howie when he gets hot, too, and pitchers can’t do anything with him. He hits shots everywhere. That will come, I’m sure. He’s too good a hitter.”
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.
Brandon Wood’s eyes seem to brighten when he looks at the lineup card and sees he’s at shortstop. He put on another show at his natural position on Saturday in Tucson. Unfortunately, it went largely unnoticed, obscured by the events surrounding John Lackey’s forearm and Mike Napoli’s return behind the plate.
Facing Dan Haren, one of the game’s premier right-handers, in the second inning after Haren had set down the first five men he faced, Wood went with a slider on an 0-1 count and launched it over the wall in right field.
“I hit it on the sweet spot,” Wood said, his fourth Cactus League homer tying him with Jeff Mathis for the club lead. “Any time you can go deep on a guy like that, it feels good.”
But the best was about to come. Arizona catcher Miguel Montero hit a ground ball seemingly headed for left field. Wood got there running full-tilt, leaped and whirled in a motion that Derek Jeter has come to popularize, and gunned down the runner with a strong, accurate throw.
“I like defense,” Wood said when asked which of the two acts — the opposite-field homer or sensational play in the field — was more gratifying. “To get out there at shortstop and make a play, I really enjoy that. Normally, you want to try to plant and set for the throw, but in that case, moving as fast as I was, it probably would have taken four or five steps to get set. So I went in the air and let it fly.”
It was clearly a big-league play by a big-league shortstop. With Erick Aybar, Maicer Izturis and Sean Rodriguez — great athlete, gun of an arm — also at the position, the Angels have an embarrassment of riches.
Wood wasn’t quite done. Later in the game, he appeared to break his bat launching a 340-foot foul drive into the left-field corner. It turns out he’d actually broken the bat on an earlier pitch in the at-bat.
“I hit a line drive on a 2-0 pitch, and that’s when I broke it,” Wood said. “When I hit the ball down the line, it didn’t travel as far as I thought it would. I looked at the bat, and the handle was cracked.”
Solid glove, strong arm, awesome power. Nice tool kit Brandon is carrying around.
Even though Angels skipper Mike Scioscia has left a distinct impression that he doesn’t want his pitchers swinging the bat this spring in National League parks, Joe Saunders apparently couldn’t resist.
Following a triple to the left-center gap by fleet Peter Bourjos with two outs in the second inning Saturday, Saunders went the other way on an Aaron Heilman delivery and slapped it into left field for an RBI single.
Saunders, an exceptional golfer from the right side, swings the bat left-handed, as he does everything else. Joe got more exercise than he bargained for when Chone Figgins followed with his second double of the day, to the same left-center gap Bourjos hit. Third-base coach Dino Ebel wisely held Saunders at third, and he stayed there when Reggie Willits fouled out to left.
Figgins also had a hand in a textbook relay in the second inning, cutting down Milton Bradley at third. Terry Evans ran down Bradley’s drive into the right-field corner and hit cutoff man Sean Rodriguez, who threw a one-hop bullet from shallow right that Figgins snagged on one hop, applying the tag on Bradley.
Rodriguez demonstrated his exceptional range later in the inning when he went behind second to backhand a grounder by Esteban German and nail him at first with an off-balance throw.
In his second at-bat leading off the fourth inning, Saunders was clearly back with the program. He didn’t take a swing, looking at a third strike.