Sunday, September 11, 2011
Angels' youngsters see glare of race
By Mark Saxon ESPNLosAngeles.com
ANAHEIM -- It's not quite right to say that none of these Los Angeles Angels youngsters have been in a pennant race before. There was that magical August 2007 when Jordan Walden's Orem, Utah, club was vying for a Pioneer League title.
A rookie-ball race probably feels a little different than this, though, wouldn't you think? Something about the extra deck or two on a stadium and the TV cameras in the dugout can change the ambience a tad.
"Every other year, I've been home at this point," Walden said.
A blithe disregard for the circumstances has helped carry this Angels team into an improbable pennant race, probably ahead of its time, this year. Did some of the young Angels finally wake up Sunday morning, realize that it's getting close to mid-September, that the New York Yankees are in town and that October baseball is suddenly a legitimate possibility?
Peter Bourjos dropped this critical fly ball during the seventh inning but earlier hit a two-run homer to give the Angels a 5-2 lead.
Maybe, maybe not, but two of the brightest young players on the team made mistakes that helped usher in the Yankees' sweep-defying 6-5 win at Angel Stadium on Sunday afternoon, a loss that knocked the Angels another notch from their goal -- now 2½ games behind the Texas Rangers with 16 left, the next 10 on the road.
Peter Bourjos, probably the best defensive center fielder in the American League, dropped a Mark Teixeira fly ball that accounted for the winning run. Mark Trumbo, perhaps the rookie of the year, got a little overanxious with the bases loaded and hit an infield popup to strand a runner at third with less than two outs.
It seemed almost too coincidental. Before the game, manager Mike Scioscia talked as though he were hoping these young players never quite realize what's at stake. They had been playing like it all year.
"We don't want to get caught up in a lot of the things you guys are trying to ask, like how will young guys do in a pennant race, all that stuff," Scioscia said. "It's a baseball game. I think these guys are playing free."
How can you tell when the pressure is getting to a guy? Was it the moment or the midafternoon Southern California sun that got to Bourjos on Sunday, or maybe a little of both?
"It's a play I've got to make," Bourjos said. "It was the turning point of that game and ended up being where we lost the game right there."
Trumbo took his share of blame, too, in part to deflect some attention from his friend and longtime teammate.
"In my mind he's the best center fielder in baseball. Obviously, I was surprised, but we didn't lose the game because of that play," Trumbo said.
So, why did you lose it?
"There were a number of factors, but my at-bat with the bases loaded comes to mind. I'll take a lot of the blame for that," Trumbo said.
Let's be fair. Even if the Angels never track down the Rangers this month, you can't really pin it on their young guys. Don't forget: Bobby Abreu, who came up 15 years ago, struck out to leave a runner at third with one out. So did Torii Hunter, who broke into the big leagues in 1998. Bourjos' drop cost them the game, but it shouldn't have. The Angels should have sent Freddy Garcia off with a loss and the Yankees off after a sweep.
Bourjos and Mike Trout have helped make this the fastest team Scioscia has ever had. Trumbo has helped make it more powerful than most people thought it would be. Walden has helped stabilize a bullpen that has teetered on flammable. The young guys have rescued this team, not left it stranded.
And here's the thing about this weekend: The Angels didn't exactly embarrass themselves. In the heat of a pennant race, they had outscored the best team in the American League 8-1 entering Sunday's game. They built a 5-2 lead against them Sunday, but the Yankees' relentless offense finally got its relentlessness back.
It's just that, as scrutiny increases with October a few weeks off, you always wonder about how well untested players will handle the pressure. You can tell Scioscia is concerned enough about it that he's doing everything he can to keep things light. Hunter, the veteran team leader, is on the same agenda.
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Here's Scioscia's message to his young team -- on which 16 players have made their major league debuts and 19 guys have fewer than two years of seasoning: Play as freely as if you were in spring training, in the Arizona sun.
"There's no such thing as a spring-training game, a regular-season game, a pennant-race game or a playoff game," Scioscia said. "It's a baseball game, and I think our guys have shown that."
Hunter realizes the young position players watch his approach. Many of them seek him out for advice about that day's starting pitcher, occasionally watching video with him.
"Sometimes, I tell them, 'Good luck,' if it's Felix Hernandez or something," Hunter said.
Other times, Hunter might share a tendency he has picked up or describe what he's thinking in the batter's box. Occasionally, Trumbo shares a piece of information that helps Hunter. It's not a one-way information highway. It might be that the veterans' role is to keep the atmosphere light enough that nobody chokes on the tension.
"The veteran guys have to kind of keep our cool, keep our composure," Hunter said. "The young guys feed off it. I can feel it."
Hunter said he felt this team come together about a month ago. Now, as the pressure mounts, we get to see how strong the glue is.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.