Commentary

Blend of young, old powers Angels

Chemistry has grown on rebuilding team, which finds itself in thick of pennant race

Updated: August 25, 2011, 8:57 AM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- At 9:50 p.m. last Thursday, the Los Angeles Angels were staring at a meaningless September and a blank October. By 10 p.m., everything had changed -- maybe permanently, maybe temporarily. Time will tell. From the often-misleading perspective of the present, those furious 10 minutes look pivotal.

It took five pitches from Texas Rangers reliever Mike Adams for the Angels' fortunes to soar.

Torii Hunter smashed the second pitch he saw from Adams for a single to right-center field, and the guy on deck, rookie Mark Trumbo, started picking up the energy of that aggressive start to the bottom of the ninth.

"I was thinking, 'OK, that's kind of the approach I'm going to take, too,'" Trumbo said.

[+] EnlargeMark Trumbo
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe value of Mark Trumbo's recent winning homer against Texas is still to be determined, but for now it has kept the Angels in the pennant race for the AL West title.

The count was even at 1-and-1 when Adams went to his best pitch, a slider, but he hung it -- it "backed up" in the parlance of baseball -- and Trumbo's powerful, upper-cut swing sent the ball sailing high and deep toward the left-field corner. It was a swing that left no doubt about that ball's trajectory -- the seats -- but did leave doubt about the future of an AL West race that seemed to be in the bag seconds earlier.

In the week since , the Angels' fortunes have swung wildly and unexpectedly skyward, mirroring the arc of Trumbo's walk-off home run. Before Trumbo's swat, they were staring at an eight-game deficit with 37 games to play: virtual elimination. A week later, they're 2½ games out after Wednesday night's 8-0 win over the Chicago White Sox, their sixth win in a row, and a three-game series in Texas looms this weekend.

"We needed that game to stay alive," Hunter said.

Was it the moment of the 2011 season? As with anything in a pennant race, with hopes ebbing and flowing like the tides, its value will depend on later events.

"At the time, it obviously was important, but its importance will be defined on how we do over the next five weeks or so," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.

It wasn't just a pivotal moment. It was a telling one -- a veteran (Hunter) opening a door that a young guy (Trumbo) busts through. It showed just how tricky and oddly exciting this season is for the Angels. Typically, teams don't contend while they're rebuilding. The Angels are attempting to get younger while playing better.

Few have pulled it off.

First-year players are all over this roster, their fingerprints all over this season: the leading RBI man and home run hitter (Trumbo), the best defender and burgeoning table setter (Peter Bourjos), the closer (Jordan Walden). Twelve of the 25 players on the Angels' roster have fewer than two years of service time. Outfielder Mike Trout, who just turned 20, is the youngest player in the majors.

Normally, a veteran would see so many young guys around him in the room and assume the team has set its sights on the future over the present. Hunter, who played his first big league game before Trout turned 7, sees it differently.

"They're bringing up guys who have it mentally, who can make adjustments right away and who are not afraid," Hunter said. "Trumbo and Bourjos, those two guys are not afraid. Mike Trout? He just turned 20 years old and he's up there battling at the plate, in a 3-and-2 count almost every at-bat, because he has plate awareness. At 20! It took me until yesterday to learn plate awareness."

There are reasons teams rarely succeed while going young in bulk. Newly arrived players have typically dominated at every level they've played. They're not as proficient at moving beyond failure. It can take a year or more to adjust. Think about Howie Kendrick's career arc.

Young players also may not be suited for the physical punishment of playing six or seven days a week for 26 weeks.

Hunter is the team leader. He makes sure the young guys live up to certain standards.

"These are tough boys. It's not the soft first-rounder who says 'don't touch me, my toenail's hurting, I've got irritated eyes, I can't play' type of guys. These guys play through pain," Hunter said. "They're ready to play. Of course, I try to make them feel that way, too. I make them feel, 'You've got to play.'"

Hunter has played the most games on the team this season (125). Trumbo is second with 120 and Bourjos is fourth with 115.

You can tell this team might have a different type of young player because of what they're doing. Trumbo is the only Angels rookie ever to hit two walk-off home runs in one season. Bourjos singled home the winning run in the Angels' last at-bat Tuesday night. The blending has even worked out in the clubhouse, where there's little palpable tension between the 13 veterans and 12 newcomers.

Of course, winning six in a row helps soothe a lot of nerves.

"Right now, I think we're pretty relaxed in a good way," Trumbo said. "We gained a little momentum and that's taken a little pressure off things. If we had kept falling, now we'd really be grinding. We're in a pretty good spot right now."

They are now, one swing and seven days later.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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