Sunday, May 30, 2010

By Victor Varadi - Columnist

It’s Sunday morning, the field is quiet. Angels catcher Mike Napoli is taking grounders at first base, practicing ranging to his right and under-handing the ball to what would be the pitcher. He doesn’t miss any and actually looks pretty good moving to his right. Brandon Wood offers some words of encouragement and after 10 minutes or so the two walk off together while Alfredo Griffin collects the remaining baseballs.

Knowing Angels manager Mike Scioscia, he was likely on the phone to Salt Lake even before the cart arrived to ferry Kendry Morales off to the hospital and onto the disabled list. He probably had Napoli taking grounders in the locker room before he let him shower. Angels fans can take solace in the fact that the team is still in the extraordinarily capable hands of 2009’s American League manager of the year.

The 2010 season thus far has been a disappointment, but it just got really interesting. Sunday had to be considered the first day of a new season. No question, losing Morales for possibly the season is going to kill this team’s chances of winning the division and going deep into the playoffs. His booming bat and electric presence in the lineup cannot be replaced by but a few Major League hitters. Consider that Morales was also rounding into a fine defensive player and the idea of sticking Napoli at first base might make some Angels fans a little queasy, but as Scioiscia said before Sunday’s game, “When you’re trying to replace a guy like Kendry Morales, you just don’t have hitters of his caliber that are already on the depth chart. If they are, they’re already playing in the big leagues.”

But what are the choices? Sure, Robb Quinlan or Kevin Frandsen might play defensively a little bit better than Napoli — and defense is most definitely a concern. (The Angels have committed an error in each of their last seven games and are leading the Majors in that category for the month of May). But the primary concern has to be how the team can replace that big bat in the middle of the lineup. Napoli is on an absolute tear, with five of his seven home runs coming in the last 10 games. With a wobbly Hideki Matsui unable to play the field regularly, Napoli must play every day.

And what to do about Matsui? Morales’ absence makes it all the more imperative that Scioscia keeps his currently weak bat in the lineup in hopes of awakening a slumbering Godzilla. Upon inspection of Sunday’s lineup, the first of many days without Morales, one is immediately struck by the lack of oomph in that middle part. Torii Hunter is day-to-day with a wrist injury he suffered getting hit by a pitch from Felix Hernandez, so the team is going to have to rely on the slumping Juan Rivera to provide some pop from the 4 or 5 spot.

An hour after Napoli and Wood walked off together, not a single Angels player had taken the field. With no batting practice for this early start (I don’t know enough about scheduling to make any determinations), but there were a handful of Mariners players on the field for a full 20 minutes before an Angels player showed his face. I’d like to imagine some type of rah-rah speech being given in the clubhouse like something out of “Major League”: “Well, I guess there’s only one thing left to do…win the whole [expletive] thing!”Napoli finds himself first in line

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