Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Angels have moved on from Morales
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
ANAHEIM -- On the evening of May 11, Kendrys Morales and one of his agents joined Los Angeles Angels general manager Tony Reagins and team orthopedist Lewis Yocum in a dining room at Angel Stadium and delivered stunning news to a small gathering of news media.
Morales, the team's cleanup hitter, would be lost for another season. Word got out quickly via Twitter and other platforms, but it sort of leaked down to where the Los Angeles Angels get dressed.
"It was just clubhouse chatter. Then, Mike [Scioscia] came out and told us," right fielder Torii Hunter said.
No one knew on May 29, 2010 that Kendrys Morales would lose over a year to injury, and the Angels are just now getting over it.
The Angels lost that night's game to the Chicago White Sox in 10 innings.
They got on a plane and lost their next game, in Texas. For a month, the losses kept piling up, six in a row at one point and 19 of the next 28. That stretch -- from May 11 to June 10 -- was one of the worst months since Scioscia arrived.
"We didn't hit. We didn't pitch too good," Bobby Abreu said. "It was a mess."
Hunter said it was like that game Jenga, in which you pile up blocks until everything comes crashing down. It got shaky, not by subtraction but by addition. Each of the remaining hitters tried to do too much, building pressure the foundation couldn't support.
"We really thought [Morales] was going to help this team out, so we just tried to hold it down until he got back," Hunter said. "After the breaking news, I think guys tried to do a little too much. I'm one of the guys. That's when you had all nine guys trying to pick up slack, trying to be that guy."
Scioscia held a team meeting, told his hitters not to try so hard. He repeated his mantra to reporters on a daily basis. It took four weeks, but it eventually got through, like a carrier pigeon waylaid by a nasty storm.
"It kind of set in, 'OK, he's not coming back. Let's do it as a team,' " Hunter said.
The Angels have followed up that abysmal month with a plodding rather than meteoric rise, so it hasn't drawn much attention. Even after Wednesday's 5-4 loss to the Detroit Tigers, the Angels have won seven straight series and pulled themselves out of that hole they were so busy digging for the previous 30 days. Before Wednesday's loss -- played in stifling humidity with a starting pitcher suffering from strep throat and a shifty Joe West strike zone -- the Angels had gone 16-6 since June 10.
To Scioscia, the blow of losing Morales was strictly physical, not psychological. With Vernon Wells in a two-month-long offensive tailspin adjusting to a new team, the Angels didn't have a legitimate cleanup hitter. Morales had earned the job after his arrive-on-the-scene 2009. For months, the Angels didn't have a cleanup hitter, they just had guys batting fourth. And no, Alberto Callaspo does not count as a legitimate cleanup hitter.
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"You're trying to find some chemistry. I think it probably affected that more than just a psychological effect of guys saying, 'Hey, he's not going to be here, so we need to start swinging harder,' " Scioscia said.
It's amazing what a legitimate threat can do for the middle of your lineup. The Angels are 19-7 with Wells batting cleanup. Nine of Wells' past 12 hits have gone for extra bases. He has mashed 11 home runs in his past 33 games, a sample size that fits nicely onto this Angels surge. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren have been themselves all year, but Vernon Wells just turned back into Vernon Wells.
Even if he keeps it up, he's not good enough to do it alone. There's not enough small-ball potential in this team to manufacture the runs they're going to need. Mark Trumbo looks like a guy who will bat fourth or fifth in the future and he leads the team in home runs, his 14th sailing over the fence to break up Brad Penny's roll Wednesday afternoon.
But it's really on the veterans. Scioscia made that clear when he summoned Wells, Abreu and Hunter into his office near the end of that painful stretch.
"That's why you're a veteran," Abreu said. "You've played this game a long time, you know how to face situations and you know how you can help these guys, especially because this is a young club."
Abreu is a table setter at this stage of his career, but -- with an on-base percentage that has danced around .400 all year -- he's a good one. The Angels need at least two pistons to be firing to continue this run, which is why Hunter is so important to them as another run producer.
Wednesday's box score says Hunter is batting .240, but he insists he feels like so much more lately. If you don't believe him, believe the song.
For much of the season, Hunter came to the plate accompanied by the "Sanford and Son" theme song. Wasn't that show about an old man? Now Hunter, 35, is coming up to the song from "The Jeffersons," the one with the lyric, "Movin' on up." He feels like he's about to.
"The second half is going to be totally different, I can tell you that," Hunter said.
The Angels have started to give their fans a reason to believe again.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.