It has taken a little longer than anyone connected with the Angels would have preferred, but it appears baseball is back on the rails in Anaheim.
Angels owner Arte Moreno put baseball on its collective ear this winter when he went out and spent $330 million to lock up Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, respectively the best hitter and pitcher on the free-agent market.
Then April came and went and suddenly Moreno was being mocked.
The Angels got off to an 8-15 start in April. Pujols was looking lost at the plate and, even worse, the Texas Rangers were sprinting away from the pack in the American League West.
A few things happened then that changed the course of the season for the Angels.
On April 27, GM Jerry Dipoto released fading veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu and called up the red-hot 20-year-old phenom from the minors, Mike Trout.
Six days later, he dealt prospects Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach to San Diego in exchange for right-hander reliever Ernesto Frieri.
Those two moves combined with the re-emergence of the Albert Pujols most baseball fans recalled in St. Louis has the Angels closing the gap on the front-running Rangers who visit Anaheim this weekend.
The Rangers went into the series opener Friday night with a 51/2 game lead on the second-place Angels who had won eight of their previous 10.
Trout, who plays with the maturity of an established star, is getting plenty of the credit for the turnaround all by himself.
Since joining the Angels, Trout has been in the leadoff position every game and his ability to get on base, play havoc with a pitcher’s concentration with his gazelle-like speed and hit for power has changed the Angels dramatically.
“He has tangibly brought something that our team desperately needed, and that’s on-base percentage from the top of our lineup,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia recently told MLB.com. “And as the guys in the middle are starting to swing the bats better, you’re starting to see some groupings that are starting to flow.”
Trout is hitting .303 with five homers, 16 RBIs, 21 runs and eight stolen bases in the 30 games he has played since being called up.
But as much as his own numbers, as Scioscia points out, it’s the effect he’s having on his teammates, many of whom had been struggling mightily before his arrival.
“He’s got an electricity to the way he plays that rubs off,” Dipoto said. “And I think it really picked up the energy level for the team in general.”
Pujols hit an anemic .217 in April without a home run. In May, he is hitting .263 with eight homers and 24 RBIs.
Mike Trumbo, one of the hottest hitters in the majors right now, was hitting a respectable .304 with three homers and eight RBIs when Trout came on the scene. Since then, his has busted out to a .367 batting average with seven homers and 18 RBIs.
As a team, the Angels averaged just less than 31/2 runs a game in April but have come around in May to bump that up to 4.1.
Pujols, who now has his family living with him in Anaheim, is a completely different player than the one that limped through April.
Since a season-low batting average of .190 on May 8, Pujols has hit .309 since to raise his average to .243 and has been driving in a run a game for the past 23 games.
On the pitching side, the big change was the addition of Frieri who has been lights out in relief since heading north.
In fact, in 12 appearances with his new team, he has yet to give up even a hit while striking out 25.
The closer role has bounced around a little, starting with Jordan Walden and then moving to Scott Downs, but that was never the Angels’ biggest problem through April.
It was scoring runs and lately that doesn’t look like such a problem any more.
The Angels though are not without some concerns. Staff ace Jered Weaver expects to miss two to three starts with a back strain while catcher Chris Iannetta is out until at least late June following wrist surgery ... The torn muscle in Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s thumb may not keep him out of the lineup much longer. Pedroia tried out a customized brace earlier this week, but the swelling in his right thumb had still not gone down. The Sox were hoping not to have to put Pedroia on the disabled list, but they are already running short of infielders with Adrian Gonzalez playing to outfield to keep the bats of both rookie Will Middlebrooks and Kevin Youkilis in the lineup .
TULO FEELING TOO LOW
The timing couldn’t be worse for Troy Tulowitzki.
Well, it could be if the playoffs were around the corner, but barring that, the groin strain that landed him on the disabled list this week is a definite case of bad timing.
Tulowitzki had just ironed out his throwing problems at short and was starting to see his bat come around — his average was up to .287 with 10 hits in his past 24 at-bats.
The Rockies had won three in a row and would extend that to four a night later. But Tulowitzki, the Rockies’ heart and soul both on defence and offence, would not be a part of that one.
Tulowitzki underwent an MRI on Thursday that revealed a strain higher up the leg than the one he suffered earlier in the year. The good news is the Rockies feel the full 15-day time off will take care of the issue. Had they tried to rush him back, they might have been dealing with a much longer absence.
Former Blue Jay Marco Scutaro will fill in for Tulowitzki at short during his absence.
DODGERS ARE HAMSTRUNG
Matt Kemp sat out two weeks with a strained hamstring.
Two games after returning, he re-injured the hamstring and added a second strain higher up in the leg.
The Dodgers went 9-5 without their superstar outfielder the first time he sat out. This time around, he’ll be out a minimum of four weeks —and likely longer given that he is dealing with two injuries to the same muscle.
Manager Don Mattingly was trying to put on a brave face.
“We’ll find out what kind of club we are,” he told the L.A. Times. “We were able to find out for a couple of weeks when Matt was out and guys stepped up. And we’re going to have to do it again. We’ll learn more about our team. Are we going to bend but not break? We’ll see.”
Kemp was the National League player of the month for April when he hit .417 with 12 home runs and 25 RBIs.
REDS NOT REVVED UP JUST YET
Dusty Baker is in a pretty nice position these days and we’re not talking specifically about his first-place perch in the National League Central.
The veteran Cincinnati Reds manager has a team he knows can smack the ball around with power and consistency but isn’t ready to enjoy the lofty heights of his team.
“We’re not as good as we’re going to get,” Baker told reporters after a rare series loss in Pittsburgh earlier this week. “But, as long as you keep getting good pitching, you stay in every ball game. That’s the bottom line. We’re not beating people to death. We’re just winning.”
The inference being that, at some point, Baker see his team starting to “beat people up.”
Canada’s own Joey Votto has been a consistent contributer in that category but the offence is by no means a scary one for opponents at this time.
As a team, the Reds are hitting just .241, which is 25th out of 30 MLB clubs. The team on-base percentage is a simlarly weak, .306, and fifth from the bottom in the Majors.
A strong bullpen and a decent starting five have covered up some of that weakness, but eventually the Reds are going to have to start to hit or that first-place standing won’t be there much longer.
HAWK HAS BEAK SLAPPED
Ken Harrelson may be immune to suspension or fine by the commissioner’s office, but apparently that doesn’t extend to a good old-fashioned dressing-down.
And that’s exactly what the Chicago White Sox television analyst got from Bud Selig himself after the Hawk went off on umpire Mark Wegner, who tossed White Sox pitcher Jose Quintana from a game for throwing behind Rays hitter Ben Zobrist on Wednesday.
Harrelson’s rant was a little longer but here are the highlights of his reaction following the ejection.
“He threw him out of the ball game?” Harrelson almost shouted. “You’ve got to be bleeping me! What in the hell are you doing? What are you doing, Wegner? You gotta be kiddin’ me. That is so bad. That is absolutely brutal. That is unbelievable. I’ll tell you what — they have got to start making guys be accountable.”
Umpires needing to be held accountable is a fashionable opinion these days. Tigers manager Jim Leyland all but bullied the Detroit press corps into writing as much after a recent argument with a different umpire.
Selig could fine him, but he did not let the Harrelson comments go unnoticed.
“We had a talk,” Harrelson told ESPN Chicago. “Actually, Bud talked and I listened. If it was a prize fight, they would have stopped it in the first round.”