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Friday, June 18, 2010
Angels' power surges in Wrigley debut

By Mark Saxon
ESPNLosAngeles.com

CHICAGO -- Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field was kind of a split-personality day. For seven innings, the sun beat down on the players and thick humidity invaded their pores.

Then the clouds began moving in and, by the time the Los Angeles Angels were wrapping up their 7-6 win over the Chicago Cubs -- just barely -- the thunder and lightning began. The sky got black, the temperature plunged and, pretty soon, hail was landing in the thick infield grass.

The Angels seem pretty well suited to roll with the changes these days. They're showing a versatility of styles. They still can trot out their usual small-ball ways (four bunts, a couple of stolen bases Friday) to put pressure on a defense, which sometimes buckles. The Cubs' did Friday.

Then again, the Angels can bring a little thunder from time to time, too. Torii Hunter and Howie Kendrick cracked home runs in the team's first game at Wrigley Field.

"I've always said we have a little bit of American League and a little bit of National League in us," Hunter said. "We showed it today. We hustled down the line, bunted guys over, bunted a man in from third -- with two outs. That's impressive. I like the way we're playing right now."

Whatever it is, the Angels do well in a pitching-and-defense league. They are 44-20 (.688) in interleague play since the start of the 2007 season.

The new wrinkle is the power, which has tempered their usual enthusiasm for daring on the bases. The Angels rank fifth in the AL in home runs despite playing their home games in one of the best pitchers' parks in the major leagues. They loved the comfy confines of Wrigley: Hunter's ball would have been a double just about anywhere else and Kendrick's fly ball was wind-aided.

Thanks in part to an offensive surge, the Angels are playing their most consistent baseball at a time when they normally begin to take off. They're 17-6 since May 25, the best record in baseball in that span.

The pitching has something to do with it, too, of course. Friday it was just so-so, but maybe that's to be expected when the wind is blowing out at Wrigley Field and the temperatures are in the 90s. Scott Kazmir (7-5) grew up in muggy Houston, but he admits the hot weather here sapped him from the minute he stepped on the mound. He managed to get through six innings, but he said it wasn't terribly fun.

"I'm not acclimated to this heat. It was a grind out there," Kazmir said.

For a while, it was a grind. Then, it was a few minutes of near panic. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez, the Angels' most pleasant pitching surprise this season, walked two batters and gave up a three-run home run to leadoff man Tyler Colvin in the ninth. Suddenly, things got chaotic down in the Angels' bullpen.

Manager Mike Scioscia, eyeing a succession of right-handed power hitters due to bat, summoned Fernando Rodney instead of left-handed closer Brian Fuentes. Scioscia said that decision stemmed from equal parts timing -- Fuentes didn't have sufficient time to warm up -- and the matchups. Fuentes has had a tendency to give up home runs to right-handed batters this year, five of them in all.

Rodney served up a fat changeup, though, and Derrek Lee lifted it over the left-field bleachers. That cut the Angels' lead -- which was five entering the inning -- to one.

"Now, we're closing our eyes ... nervous," Hunter said.

Not for long, though. Rodney induced Geovany Soto to hit a slow roller that ended it. The Angels have been well-served by resiliency as well as versatility. They won 12 of their first 15 games after losing slugger Kendry Morales. They've won two out of three since starting shortstop Erick Aybar went down.

Scene and heard

Two of the actors from the old Saturday Night Live "Chicago Superfans," skit sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch.

Beforehand, George Wendt and comedian Robert Smigel sat in the press dining room trying to figure out how to attach a fake mustache to Wendt's upper lip. The Cubs staffers couldn't come up with any two-way tape, so they used a glue stick and tape. While Wendt was standing next to Cubs color analyst Bob Brenly, singing, the mustache fell off.

Before the WGN appearance, the two actors practiced some lines. In a thick Chicago accent, Wendt said, "The Angels? They don't even know if they're from Los Angeles or Anaheim."

Key play

The Cubs' defense has been awful lately and the people who watch it a lot are growing tired of it. After their third error that led to the fourth unearned run Friday, Brenly muttered, "terrible," on the WGN broadcast.

Brenly blasted the Cubs for not paying attention to advance scouting reports about the Angels' aggressive baserunning and bunting. The Cubs apparently miss Aramis Ramirez, who is out with a thumb injury. His replacement at third base, Jeff Baker, handed the Angels three runs in the seventh inning.

Baker misplayed three straight ground balls. The first two were throwing errors. On the last play, Juan Rivera hit an easy double-play ball, but Baker dropped it and had to go to first. Two batters later, Howie Kendrick hit a two-run home run.

The three unearned runs iced the game for the Angels.

Quote of the day

"After Derrek Lee hit that home run over the fence, I heard a [clap] of thunder. I'm like, 'Hurry up and get these guys out. They're swinging with thunder.'" -- Hunter

Looking ahead

The Angels had better set their alarms. They play the second game of this series Saturday at 12:05 p.m. Chicago time.

If the conditions are the same as Friday, it could be a major test for Jered Weaver (6-3, 3.29), who tends to be one of the extreme fly-ball pitchers in baseball. The Angels face Ted Lilly (2-5, 2.90), a crafty lefty who carried a no-hitter into the ninth inning in his previous start against the Chicago White Sox.

Lilly used to pitch for the New York Yankees and Oakland A's, so the Angels have seen him a lot. He's 5-4 with a 3.45 ERA in 10 starts against them.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.