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From Scapegoat to Unsung Hero

aybar hero

Although the Angels’ 2008 season ended on a walk-off hit by the Red Sox, many remember it ending with Erick Aybar at the plate.

With 1 out and a pinch-runner Reggie Willits on 3rd, Mike Scioscia opted to win or lose by doing what they had done all year… play Angel baseball.

A suicide squeeze was the call, but when the pitch ran up inside on Aybar and he couldn’t get the bat on the ball, Willits, like the rest of the team, was done for. You could feel the momentum shift away from the Angels, it was that monumental. Pack it up. Head home. Season over.

One could only imagine what had gone through Aybar’s head on that flight home, and for the entire offseason for that matter. Many people (including myself) blamed Aybar for ending the Angels’ postseason run. Many people blamed Mike Scioscia for putting on a high-risk play in such a crucial situation.

When a suicide squeeze is called, the manager puts the absolute utmost confidence in the batter to at least hit the ball into the field of play, because if not, the runner is a sitting duck, and the team squanders a potentially vital run-scoring opportunity.

But, as the great Mark McGwire once said, “I’m not here to talk about the past.” It’s time to recognize what’s been going on in the present day.

Since day 1 of  being part of the Angels’ system (just like that fateful at-bat in Boston), the club had invested the utmost of confidence and placed immensely high hopes in this “Aybar kid”. He’s quick, he’s a slap-hitter, his range in the field is jaw-dropping, he’s acrobatic, you name it. Over his minor league career, Aybar hit at an impressive .312 mark. When he was 20 years old, he stole 51 bases over the course of his season in Advanced-A ball.

Management had touted Aybar as a player where “the sky’s the limit” for him in terms of potential and the type of player he could grow to be.

In 2007, he hit .237.

In 2008, he hit .277.

An improvement, yes, but me like plenty of other Angel fans out there were missing something. If this kid is supposed to be “so good”, don’t you think he could lay a suicide squeeze down? You’d think. This guy’s our future everyday shortstop? Yeah right.

As you can tell, I was not impressed with Aybar whatsoever since he had been called up to the Angels’ big league squad. I had seen flashes of him being who the Angels hyped him up to be, but he was way too streaky. He’d go on a tear for a few games with the bat, then go ice cold for a week. Consistency was nonexistent.

Then 2009 rolled around.

A redemption year for Aybar, if you will. And a year where I finally understand why the Angels’ front office loved this kid so much.

To start the season, I was hoping they would give the starting shortstop job to Maicer Izturis, a guy who was consistent, clutch, and more proven to-date. But Aybar had put forth a better spring training than Mighty Maicer, and was the Opening Day shortstop for the Halos.

Erick would hit at a disappointing .245 mark over the course of the opening month, which had me somewhat furious why Mike Scioscia kept putting him in the lineup.

He would hit .303 during the month of May, which made me a tad bit happier. His season average was just a shade under .280 after 2 months of play… not great, but not horrible either.

June gloom hit Aybar pretty hard as he batted a mere .256 during June, but then Aybar would turn on the jets.

EA had an absolutely unreal month of July. So good in fact that he had the highest batting average of every starting position player in the entire league over the course of the month.

What did he hit, you ask?

.414. Let that soak in for a moment, do a double take if you need to, you’re reading it correctly.

36 hits in 87 at-bats, 17 runs scored, 18 RBI, a homer, 2 triples, and 6 doubles. All while playing exceptional defense in the field.

In a double-header at Kansas City, Aybar collected 7 hits (yeah… 7 hits in one day!) by going 7-for-9 with 5 runs scored! I don’t know if you could draw up a more successful day of baseball for one player.

His batting average has dipped below .300 once since July 19th (September 4th’s game with the Mariners capped off an 0-for-20 slide… which brought his average to .299).

On the season he’s hitting .306 with 5 homers, 53 RBI, 62 runs scored, 21 doubles, and 5 triples, all career bests. He’s also stolen 13 bases and posted a .350 on-base percentage, also his best marks in his young career.

But as much as he’s been letting his bat do the talking, his work at shortstop has been nothing short of sensational.

Entering 2009, Aybar had possessed unbelievable range in the field, meaning he could cover so much ground that he would almost always get a glove on a ball hit in his general area. He has a cannon for an arm despite being just 5’10” and 170 pounds. But he had always been erratic. For every highlight reel play that he’d make, he would counter by messing up the simplest of grounders.

But as in almost every aspect of Aybar’s game, 2009 would be a new season.

This year has proven to be a “make a name for myself” type of year for Aybar. He would routinely make plays that even the best of shortstops could only dream of making. He’s been making appearances on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the day feature seemingly every other day.

At this juncture, I don’t think I could be any happier for Erick.

Nearly 11 months after a potentially career-defining blunder at the ripe age 0f 24, he’s helping erase Angel fans’ unforgettable memory of his ALDS Game 4 mishap by playing the best ball of his career.

And although 2009 has been a year that has shown me a lot about individual players (Torii Hunter, Kendry Morales, Aybar, Juan Rivera just to name a few), but more about what this team is really made of.

This team is made of competitors. This team is made of positive influences. This team is made of winners.

This team… is a team of destiny.

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Don’t Worry, We Got Your Back

figgy maicer

The morning of July 10th seemed like the Angels’ 2009 fortunes were going to take another turn for the worst, and reasonably so.

Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, the Angels’ hottest hitter on the season and their .300+ avg., 30+ homer, 100+ RBI man respectively were placed on the Disabled List. Neither was expected back until sometime in August (expected to miss roughly 20 games, potentially more barring setbacks).

Their consolation? A 3-game series with the New York Yankees before the All-Star Break.

Fantastic.

They had gotten whomped by the Texas Rangers 8-1 the night before and had gone 4-5 entering the series with the Bronx Bombers.

The Halos had a record of 46-37 when Vlad and Mr. Hunter hit the DL, but for whatever reason, that may have been the best news the organization had received all year, believe it or not.

The Angels would go on to sweep the Yankees to go in to the All-Star Break with a 49-37 record, with the offense averaging just under 10 runs per game during the course of that 3-game set.

The Halos would have 3 representatives on the American League All-Star team in St. Louis in Brian Fuentes, Torii Hunter (withdrew due to injury), and of course Chone Figgins and his day-of-the-game addition to the squad.

Following the All-Star Break, the Angels would pick up right where they left off following the series with the Yankees, and that was hitting the ball hard, and scoring runs in bunches.

They would go 6-1 on a road trip beginning the 2nd half of the season, and would go 9-1 in their first 10 games of the 2nd half.

Until Vlad’s return to the lineup on August 4th, the Angels had compiled an eye-opening record of 17-3 that caught the baseball world’s attention. 10 of those games also were with the Angels’ lineup missing Juan Rivera, possibly the hottest hitter in all of baseball that many have never heard of.

How could they play their best ball all year without their regular 3, 4, and 5 hitters in the lineup?

In my opinion, most teams would go into a tailspin if they were without their 3 best hitters in the lineup. The offense would become anemic. They’d be lucky to post a 2-spot in the run column. You’d see that team slip farther down in the standings, unsure if they’d be able to make a late run at a division title.

Not this team. No way, no how.

First and foremost, winning 17 of 20 games without one of the lead guys in the MVP race (Hunter, who hit .305, with 17 home runs and 65 RBI before hitting the DL) as well as one of the most naturally gifted hitters the MLB has ever witnessed is a testament to one thing and one thing alone, the depth of the organization.

Torii Hunter’s out. Alright, time for Mike Scioscia to show his faith in Gary Matthews Jr. who had displeased the organization so much in 2007 that it made the Angels bring in Torii Hunter to relieve him of his everyday center field duties by Opening Day of 2008 (Matthews had hit a dismal .252 in ’07, one year following his All-Star year in Texas where he hit .313. He’d hit at any even worse .242 mark in 2008).

Vladimir Guerrero’s out. This was probably the most comfortable move for Scioscia to make considering Vladdy had been DH-ing the majority of the year. He gave Mike Napoli consistent at-bats as the designated hitter, and Nap came up with plenty of big hits, including a walk-off knock back on July 24th against the Twins (it marked the Angels’ 9th time the Angels had come back to win in their past 12 victories). Nap’s currently hitting at a .291 mark with 16 home runs, giving the Angels some great pop from the 5 or 6 spot in the lineup.

Juan Rivera’s out. Now time to really dig deep and pluck a head out of your selection of pine-riders. Now was a time to give the Angels’ notorious “guy who plays like once every 2 weeks” Robb Quinlan a spot in the everyday lineup for a small period of time. Quinny had been hitting a mere .222 in limited at-bats before being called to more often by Mike Scioscia. When the month of July had ended, Quinny had hit .350 for month (7-for-20) with 2 home runs, 6 RBI and 6 runs scored. That’s just Robb doing what he’s always done during his 6 1/2 years as an Angel, and that’s getting the job done when his name is called.

Another guy who had to be called upon was Reggie Willits, who up until the New York series had started only 1 game over the course of the ’09 season. Willits, who finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting in 2007 after hitting .293 with 27 stolen bases, hit the “sophomore wall” in ’08, hitting .194 in limited at-bats. Willits had a fantastic series in Kansas City, which featured him going 5-for-12 with 2 RBI, 5 runs scored, and a stolen base.

All of these players stepped up and picked up the slack for the aforementioned absent players.

And since we’re talking about players who have stepped it up, it would be impossible not to mention both Kendry Morales and Bobby Abreu, who both put together some monster numbers in July.

Kendry hit .326 for July, belting 7 home runs, and posting 20 RBI. His success would even trickle into August, where in the first 2 games played in August, he’d smack 3 more dingers. His hot hitting wouldn’t go unnoticed, as he would earn American League Player of the Week honors for the 1st time in his career during the week of July 27th to August 2nd. During that 6-game stretch, Kendry went 11-26 (a .423 average), blasting 5 home runs and driving in 13 runs.

As if it was hard enough to top hot hitting like that, Bobby Abreu one-upped KMo.

Abreu earned July’s Player of the Month honors after he hit .380, with a league-best 28 RBI for the month. Abreu also jacked what would turn out to be the game-winning homer back on July 19th against the Oakland Athletics.

Abreu’s 77 RBI ranks him 4th in the American League and 8th league-wide. His .322 batting average ranks him 6th in the AL and 11th league-wide. His .416 on-base percentage is 3rd in the AL and 7th in the MLB.

Let’s not fail to mention a few other players who have stepped up in a major way since the start of July.

Returning to the majors after a dismal start (.231 average through June 11th-last game before demotion to AAA), Howie Kendrick was ready to show that his ice cold start was a mere fluke. His July numbers let Angel fans know that the real Howie was back. Kendrick hit a sizzling .387, with 2 home runs, 15 RBI, and 13 runs scored in the 18 games he appeared in during the month of July. He’s now raised his average 41 points (currently hitting .272) since his demotion to AAA Salt Lake in mid-June.

And arguably the hottest hitter across all of baseball for month of July had to be shortstop Erick Aybar who hit a ridiculous .414 (yes, you saw that right, .414) over the course of the month. His totals for July were: 1 home run, 17 runs scored, and 18 RBI, more than double the total of his next highest RBI total for a month (9 RBI in June).

The Angels are currently tops in the majors in hits (1,062), with a league-best .289 team average (next highest is the LA Dodgers at a .279 mark). They trail the Yankees by 2 runs for the most runs in all of the MLB (averaging about 5.7 runs scored per game). Their .352 team OBP is 3rd best in the MLB.

A surprising statistic has to be that the Angels now rank 4th in the MLB with a .449 slugging percentage (they were 15th in ’08, 17th in ’07, 18th in ’06, 19th in ’05), and this was all after losing one of the most talented power-hitting sluggers in all of the game in Mark Teixeira, as well as the franchise’s RBI leader in Garret Anderson. The normally free-swinging “go ahead and give it a rip” Angels also rank 17th in walks taken after ranking 25th out of 30 last year (you can thank the plate discipline of Bobby Abreu and Chone Figgins for that). The Halos also have struck out fewer times than 24 other teams league-wide.

To really put in perspective how hot this lineup has been all year, take a look at the top 17 batting averages in the American League, and look at how many Angels pop up.

6- Bobby Abreu – .322 avg.

10- Juan Rivera- .314 avg.

12- Erick Aybar- .311 avg.

17- Chone Figgins – .305 avg.

That’s 4 Angels in the top 17. No other team currently has more than 2.

The depth that the Angels’ organization has prided itself in ever since the new millennium rolled around continues to pay dividends. Depth can help win championships, only time will tell if the Angels’ remarkably deep bench can contribute to a World Series Championship. At this rate, I can’t quite tell if another team rivals the Angels’ depth from player #1 down to player #25 on their 25-man roster.

The losses of Hunter and Guerrero over that stretch could turn out to be the biggest blessing in disguise in the history of the Angels’ franchise.

It’s not too often that a team can feel confident when they lose an MVP-caliber player and a potential Hall of Famer for a month due to injury. How many other teams can say that?

I can’t exactly speak for the others, but I can confidently say that the Angels can.

kmo abreu hk

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Filed under Angel Stories, August Game Recaps, July Game Recaps

Comeback Kids Channeling ’02 Mojo

kendry napAs of late, the Halos have found themselves trailing early in ballgames, digging themselves into holes that we really haven’t seen a Halo squad dig themselves out of since that magical 2002 season.

Table-setter and offensive catalyst Chone Figgins, the only offensive player left from that World Championship team, and the rest of the Halos’ attack have been channeling that 2002 mindset and magic this year.

After Saturday’s come-from-behind 14-8 win over the visiting New York Yankees, the Halos had recorded the most comeback wins in all of the MLB with 26.

Normally, you’d like to be the team that jumps out in front and puts runs up early, right?

For the Angels, not exactly. They’re saying, hey, you score some now… we’ll score more later.

Entering Sunday’s finale with the Yankees’, the Angels’ last 5 wins have all been in come from behind fashion.

July 4th vs. Baltimore Orioles (down 3-0) — win 11-4

July 5th vs. Baltimore Orioles (down 4-0) — win 9-6

July 6th vs. Texas Rangers (down 2-0) — win 9-4

July 10th vs. New York Yankees (down 4-0) — win 10-6

July 11th vs. New York Yankees (down 4-0) — win 14-8

So, if you add it all up, after allotting opposing teams 17 runs to start in the past 5 games, the Angels have outscored their opposition 11-1, 9-2, 9-2, 10-2, and 14-4 (added all up that’s 53-11).

Keep in mind that Friday’s win in the Yankees series opener, the Halos didn’t have Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero, the regular #3 and #4 spot hitters in the lineup. Then on Saturday in game 2 of the series, they were also without their #5 hitter and arguably the hottest hitter of the MLB since the beginning of June in Juan Rivera.

They Angels are getting timely contributions from different players. And lots of them.

July 4th- 17 total hits. Vladdy has 4 RBI, Torii has 3 RBI. 3 more Halos with 1 RBI each.

July 5th- 8 total hits, 7 different Angels with 1 or more RBI.

July 6th- 10 total hits, 5 different Angels with 1 or more RBI. Mathis with 3 RBI, Torii and Juan each with 2 RBI.

July 10th- 13 total hits, 5 different Angels with 1 or more RBI. Morales and Aybar each with 3-run homers.

July 11th- 16 total hits, 7 different Angels with 1 or more RBI. Abreu, Napoli with 3 RBI each. Wood, Kendrick, Matthews each with 2 RBI.

The Angels put up their most runs in a single game this season on Saturday, without their regular 3, 4, and 5 hitters… go figure?

Here’s the key.

In his first game since being called up when Torii and Vlad went to the DL, Brandon Wood nailed a 2-run home run. Howie Kendrick and his anemic season-long hitting slump mustered up a 3-for-5 showing with 2 RBI. Gary Matthews Jr. even pitched in 2 RBI late in the game. It’s a good day when your 6, 7, 8, and 9 (both Quinlan and Willits) hitters are picking up the slack by going a combined 8-16 with 1 home run, 6 RBI, and 5 runs scored. Pretty good I’d say especially when the rest of your lineup gets you the other 8 hits and the remaining 9 runs.

It’s a long way away from telling if this is a team of destiny (or history repeating itself), but neither me nor anyone else can’t deny that this team is as resilient a ballclub as we’ve seen in recent memory, on and off the diamond.

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Filed under Angel Stories, June Game Recaps

Juan Fire!

Dodgers Angels BaseballThe Angels are on fire.

Now 7 wins in a row for the Halos, 7th Heaven if you will.

And there unarguably has not been one hotter Halo hitter than Juan Rivera during this stretch.

Over the Angels’ current 7-game winning streak, Juan has gone 11-29 (.380) with 4 home runs, 2 doubles, and 9 RBI.

Juan has been instant offense over the past 18 games, hitting at that same .380 mark (27-71 overall) with 6 homers, 8 doubles, and 20 RBI. Rivera has an RBI in 15 of his last 18 games he’s appeared in and also has recorded 9 games of 2 or more hits during those 18 contests.

Today’s game against the Dodgers where he blasted a tie-busting solo home run marked the 2nd straight contest where a ball off his bat helped score the go-ahead and eventual game-deciding run.

Juan’s the type of home run hitter who will hit home runs in bunches of games, which is frequently followed by a long power outage of sorts until his next blast. But no doubt, his power is surging at this point of the season.

His average is now up to .316 on the season, the 3rd best mark on the team behind leadoff man Chone Figgins (.324) and the Halos’ Superman of the 1st half in Torii Hunter (.321). He’s also tied with Kendry Morales for 2nd on the Halos for home runs with 10.

Juan has been thriving in his starting role this season, but things have not always been so sweet during his season-by-season rollercoaster tenure in Anaheim.

Juan Rivera came over to the Angels along with current 2nd baseman Maicer Izturis in a deal that sent outfielder Jose Guillen from the Angels to the then-Montreal Expos back in November of 2004.

He would appear in 106 games in his first year as an Angel in 2005, hitting .271 with 15 home runs and 59 RBI on the season.

’06 would be a career year for Juan, where in 124 games, he would post career highs in batting average (.310), hits (139), runs scored (65), doubles (27), home runs (23), and runs batted in (85). Rivera would be an impressive mainstay in Scioscia’s lineup that year, and made the Angels look like geniuses for trading away Jose Guillen after his most impressive offensive year in 2004.

However, toward the end of 2006, his fortunes would change.

While playing Winter League ball in Venezuela, he would need a rod and screws inserted into his tibia bone after he broke his leg in a game.

His prolonged absence prompted the Angels to bring in a new outfielder, lassoing in center fielder Gary Matthews Jr. from the Texas Rangers, who made the All-Star team the year before.

He would only appear in 14 games that year, mustering up 12 hits in 43 at-bats with 2 long-balls and 8 RBI.

His return to an everyday role in the outfield and lineup would take another turn for the worst (for him at least), as the Angels shocked the baseball world by bringing in another center fielder in Torii Hunter, who had spent his whole career in Minnesota prior to the signing.

2008 marked a year where the Angels had an absolute logjam in the outfield with guys like Hunter, Matthews, Vladimir Guerrero, left field mainstay Garret Anderson, and even Reggie Willits who was coming off of a great 2007 rookie year. That put Juan as outfielder #5/maybe even #6 on the depth chart, meaning that in a matter of just about 12 months, he had gone from being an everyday player to even lesser of a situational player. And trust me, it’s not easy for a productive player like him to swallow a situation like that.

But he took it all in stride during the ’08 campaign, getting situational starts in the outfield or DH duty from time to time, appearing in 89 games altogether, his lowest total in the past 4 full years he was able to play. He’d hit at a disappointing career-low .246 mark on the season, while tallying 12 home runs and driving in 45 runs.

I give Juan a lot of credit because he could have gone off and been a baby like Jose Guillen and thrown a tantrum about his playing time, but he didn’t. He stayed within himself and knew that Mike Scioscia and the Angels would give him his chance to be back as an everyday player for the ball club. He took it all in stride like a true professional while trying to make the most out of each opportunity that he was given, knowing that if he continued to work at the level that he had been working at, all while keeping a level head, a bigger and better opportunity would come his way.

2009 would be that opportunity.

Gary Matthews Jr. struggled mightily with the bat in 2008 which carried into Spring Training.

Garret Anderson, who had spent his whole 15-year MLB career in Anaheim with the Angels (he was a member of the Angels when they were referred to as the California Angels, Anaheim Angels and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, so you know he’d been a Halo for quite some time), was not picked up and ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves.

The door opened up for him, and he made sure he seized the opportunity.

Juan landed the Opening Day role for the Halos in 2009, and has been a productive and consistent hitter for the Angels all year long.

It’s been a long time coming since that career year of 2006, but he’s on pace to surpass those numbers as he tries to guide the Halos back in to 1st place in the American League West division and hopefully capture 1 of the 4 available playoff spots in the American League.

After Friday night’s game-deciding solo blast, the fans were in a frenzy, begging Juan to take the curtain call for his late-game heroics.

But I can imagine that at that moment, it was much more than one home run in one brief moment to him. It was years of hard work and sacrifice, mixed in with his fair share of flourishing moments and hardships; going from a nearly indispensable player one year to an almost forgotten player the next.

And as he went to make his way up those steps, I sure hope he felt that he earned the right to bask in that brief moment of glory.

Take your curtain call, Juan, you’ve earned it.

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