Angels thinking forwardly
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Torii Hunter wants to position himself as a here-and-now guy.
“Last year was last year,’’ he says. “I don’t want to talk about last year. You can if you want, but I don’t give a damn about last year.’’
And he’s only been through one of these. There are some guys here who’ve been through three.
First of all, forget about 1986. In this context, that really was ancient history, something now relegated to ESPN Classic. Don Baylor and Donnie Moore have nothing to do with anything happening in 2009.
But far more recent developments do provide a context, a theme, if you will. The Red Sox and Angels played postseason series in 2004, 2007, and 2008. The Red Sox won nine of the 10 games, and it took the Angels 12 innings to win the other one.
All of which means, what, exactly?
The Angels have the answer you’d probably expect: nothing.
The way they see it, whatever happened in those other three years hap pened, but so what? This is a better team, period.
The offensive numbers back them up. The 2009 Angels finished behind only the Yankees in runs, putting 100 more across the plate than last year’s club. They had 11 players with 50 or more RBIs, which makes them the first club since the 1930 Cardinals able to make that claim. They joined the 2007 Tigers as the only teams in major league history with 10 players knocking out 100 hits. They can hit home runs (173) and they sure can run (148 stolen bases).
A case can be made that they are, 1 through 9 (and 10 and 11, etc.), the most versatile offensive team in baseball.
They more than offset the loss of Mark Teixeira (who was only a rental anyway) with the emergence of Cuban defector Kendry Morales, who surprised even himself with 34 homers, 108 RBIs, and a .569 slugging percentage in his first opportunity to be a regular. And they added a valuable piece of the puzzle in veteran Bobby Abreu, who brought the same well-crafted approach to the batting order that he had provided for the Phillies and Yankees.
Abreu, now 35, is with the Angels for one reason: The Yankees no longer wanted to pay him. He looked pretty much the same this season as he always does, frustrating pitchers with his maddening ability to work lengthy counts while putting enough good swings on the ball to drive in 100 runs (103) for the eighth time in his career. Some of the younger players took notes, the result being that the Angels became more difficult to pitch to as a team than they were in 2008.
“He taught patience to a lot of people,’’ maintains utilityman Robb Quinlan, one of the Angels who has suffered through all three of these losses to the Red Sox. “He gets on base, and it’s easy to hit behind him.’’
Abreu knows what’s coming when he sees the men and women advancing with the notebooks, recording devices, and cameras. They’ll want to talk about his M.O. in the batter’s box, and what it all means.
“This team was known for being aggressive,’’ he explains. “You need to be aggressive, but you also need to be patient. You put those together on one team, and it makes it hard on the pitcher.
“As a pitcher, you don’t know when we’re going to take a pitch or when we’re going to swing. You throw a first-pitch strike, and the guy may be swinging. You throw a curveball on the first pitch and you may be behind, 1 and 0.’’
No discussion about the Angels vs. the Red Sox is complete without discussing stolen bases. The Angels are a running team in general, and this year they have turned it up to a ridiculous degree against the Red Sox. Neither Jason Varitek nor Victor Martinez has been very adept at throwing anyone out, which means the primary burden will be on the Boston pitchers. There might be a record set for throws to first.
That assumes they’ll be on base to begin with, which brings us to the real crux of the matter. Offense is fun to talk about, but pitching generally decides these matters, and in Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, Clay Buchholz, and a revived Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Red Sox believe they have the kind of starting pitching that can neutralize any batting order, even one as deep and versatile as the Angels’.
On paper, this is the best Angels team since the 2002 world champions, and it is further energized by the commitment everyone has made to the spirit of Nick Adenhart, the young pitcher who was killed in a postgame auto accident last April. The team dynamics are clearly different this time. Then again, they’d better be.
“We just haven’t played that great against them,’’ acknowledges Quinlan. “We know we can play better. The whole team feels we just haven’t played our best baseball against them.’’
“If you go back to ’04,’’ points out manager Mike Scioscia, “there’s been a huge turnover. In ’07, we were just not the team that was going to go out there and bring the game on the field we needed to. We had some guys that were banged up. Last year, we played much better. The series could have swung either way a number of times.’’
But it didn’t.
This year there are no buts. The starting rotation is so deep that Ervin Santana will pitch out of the bullpen. The young relievers have done the job. “Heart Attack Closer’’ he may be, but Brian Fuentes had a major league-high 48 saves. The batting order you’ve already heard about.
“We play with passion,’’ asserts Hunter. “We have a lot of fun. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.’’
They all think they’re ready. They all think it’s their turn. Maybe it is.