Mike Scioscia making it count
Despite a bevy of obstacles, Angels' manager is pulling off one of his best efforts
OAKLAND, Calif. -- One of the best quotes of this baseball season came from Arizona Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson the other day when somebody asked him about his thoughts on winning the manager of the year award.
"Our goals are on our team and I could give two [expletive] about whether I'm manager of the year," Gibson told Arizona reporters. "Honestly."
Gibson's former teammate has similar feelings. Mike Scioscia is a two-time American League Manager of the Year and, in some respects, these 2011 Los Angeles Angels have been his most challenging task. Scioscia has sometimes been like Sisyphus. He grunts and strains to get the boulder up the hill only to see it come rolling back down, usually dragged by the immense gravitational pull of the Angels' offense.
"I agree with Gibby. There are bigger issues to worry about than who's going to get that award," Scioscia said.
Scioscia was manager of the year in 2002. The Angels finished fourth in the league in runs scored.
Scioscia was manager of the year in 2009. The Angels finished second in the league in runs scored.
After Wednesday's 4-1 win over the Oakland Athletics, the Angels are 82-67 and still just one hot series from tracking down the first-place Texas Rangers -- somehow, some inexplicable way. They are 10th in the AL in runs scored, averaging 4.1 runs. They have a rookie closer, one of the most overpaid players in baseball in Vernon Wells, a hole in their lineup known as the place the catcher hits and first-year guys filling all sorts of holes.
Push him and Scioscia will admit this has been his most challenging managerial task, at least in seasons when his team contended. He has had worse teams, of course. His first two Angels clubs couldn't pitch, the 2003, 2006 and 2010 teams were buried by injuries.
He has had more difficult tests of his leadership. Nick Adenhart's death in 2009 and the Jose Guillen uprising in 2004 come to mind. But he has never had to fight harder to keep a team in the hunt, and actually succeeded.
There are really only four bona-fide contenders for manager of the year -- Tampa Bay's Joe Maddon, Texas' Ron Washington, Detroit's Jim Leyland and Scioscia. Anyone who manages in Boston or New York is practically eliminated from the argument because of those teams' towering payroll edges. Guess which one of those four might have had the least to work with all year?
"When you're scoring six runs a game, you can take more chances and do some more things," Scioscia said. "You can be creative, with the percentages in your favor. When this happens, sometimes you're forcing things, thinking this is the only chance to do something. It might not work out. That's what you have to do when the offense is down.
"There have been some challenges, but hopefully we've turned that corner."
The Angels have become the spoilers of the projection systems, exceeding expectations virtually every season Scioscia has worn red. The Angels are 15 games over .500 with a run differential of 38. Texas is 20 games over .500 with a run differential of 139.
Scioscia has had to deal with some jarring paradigm shifts. Reliant on shut-down bullpens for years, he saw his relievers flub games early and learned to rely more heavily on his starters. It helps when three of them are Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver, who picked up his career-best 17th win Wednesday. Scioscia hasn't hesitated to go to his strength. He has already announced Weaver will pitch on three days' rest for the second time this season so he can make 34 starts.
Scioscia typically puts his trust in veterans, but he has had to rule in favor of young talent early and often.
Mostly, that's because general manager Tony Reagins didn't give him other options. Scioscia handed important roles to rookies Mark Trumbo and Jordan Walden. Trumbo leads the team in home runs (27) and RBIs (82) and Walden is one of five major-league rookie closers to reach 30 saves in the past 11 years.
The Angels won their 83rd game Wednesday, meaning they've had a winning record in seven of the past eight seasons.
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Things just seem to work out for Scioscia. That's probably not as coincidental as it seems. A lot of his work goes on away from public view. When the lights and cameras come on, he manages games differently than virtually any other AL manager. Fans sometimes complain about Scioscia's emphasis on small ball, but that style makes for an uncomfortable series for Angels opponents.
The Angels put pressure on a defense and, often, the defense begins to splinter. They were fighting to get out of Oakland with a series win Wednesday, leading 3-1 in the eighth inning, when Trumbo, a 6-foot-5 slugger, got a green light, noticed the pitcher had a high leg kick and took off on a steal attempt.
"The way I evaluate managers from my end is, who am I constantly on edge about, as if something's going to pop up that I'm not expecting?" A's manager Bob Melvin said. "To me, he's the best at that. He's an unpredictable guy. He's not afraid to take chances. He's not afraid to do things that might make him look bad."
With Scioscia, you get the impression that all of his moves -- unexpected, unorthodox or by-the-book -- come from a deep well of confidence. He's so unafraid of looking bad, he often winds up looking so good.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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