Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mike Scioscia - Photo by Geoff Bilau (Angelswin.com)

By Geoff Bilau - Angelswin.com Senior Editor
Reporting from Angel Stadium

It took simultaneous disabled list visits by the team’s would be MVP and perennial MVP, but since July 10 Angels fans have learned once and for all who is the 2009 Angels’ MVP — there can no longer be any question that person is Mike Scioscia.

From the strength he showed as the team’s guide through the Nick Adenhart tragedy just three days into the season to the patience he has shown time and again, often flying in the face of his most vocal critics, Scioscia’s touch has proven every bit as calculated and precise as any time during his 10 seasons in Anaheim. Not so much a Midas touch, but more like that of a master painter, whose brush strokes are often best appreciated after one has had time to take a step back and view them as a whole.

Scioscia stuck with a talented, but enigmatic Erick Aybar at shortstop when so many wondered what he saw in him. There was the botched squeeze play to end the 2008 postseason, a less flashy yet consistently clutch veteran challenger in Maicer Izturis and the franchise’s top prospect, shortstop Brandon Wood, murdering the baseball in AAA.

But now with his .439 batting average, 16 runs and 17 RBI in July, Aybar has turned himself not just into the team’s No. 1 shortstop, but also a guy the team seems hesitant to trade for much needed pitching help.

When Robb Quinlan was batting .125 on May 21, people wondered what he had done to deserve the occasional starts Scioscia continued to give him. But since being pressed into regular duty by the injuries to Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero, Quinlan has batted .412 with two home runs and six RBI in his last six starts.

When Howie Kendrick’s batting average dipped to .231 on June 11, the usually patient Scioscia had finally seen enough and sent the struggling star-in-waiting back to AAA. After three weeks during which Kendrick seemed to regain his stroke, Scioscia recalled him, ensuring he’d face the Yankees, a team Kendrick has tormented during his young career. During the 16 games without Hunter and Guerrero (and eight without Juan Rivera), Kendrick has batted .415 with four doubles, a home run, nine runs scored and nine driven in.

On July 8, the Angels lost to Texas, falling to 46-37 and a game behind the division-leading Rangers. Following an off day, the Angels welcomed the Yankees to Anaheim, placed Hunter and Guerrero on the disabled list — and inexplicably won 12 of the next 13 games, beginning with a sweep of the Bronx Bombers right before the All-Star break.

Scioscia predictably deflects any credit for the hot streak that saw the Angels score 100 runs in those 13 games and reclaim first place in the Western Division.

“I think we have a deep club,” he said. “We look to guys like Gary Matthews; Mike Napoli’s had a chance to swing the bat every day; a guy like Howie Kendrick rebounding and getting back to his game since he’s come up or Bobby Abreu with his consistency. We’ve got a solid core with a deep bench of guys who had been battling for at-bats and are now getting them. They’ve managed to keep our offense going.”

Scioscia’s careful handling of that battle, of course, has a lot to do with the success bench players like Izturis, Matthews, Quinlan and Reggie Willits are now enjoying since being pressed into regular action.

“I’ve always thought that being manager of a team like this would be extremely hard,” Willits said. “I mean, look at the outfield from a standpoint that he’s got like five All-Stars out there; so much depth in the outfield, so much depth in the infield with Howie, Izturis and Aybar. Even at catcher with Mathis and Napoli. He’s got a tremendously tough job, but I think he does a great job getting us our at-bats.”

Willits, however, doesn’t think Scioscia is doing anything this season differently than he has in the past. And that, ultimately, is the unspoken secret to Scioscia’s success.

“He’s just the same as he’s always been,” Willits said. “He keeps us loose. It’s a clubhouse where we have a good time and enjoy ourselves, but when it’s time to get down to it we play the game hard. He’s always prepared, even keeled and laid back. I think the team just feeds off that vibe.”

In July, they’ve been feasting.
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