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Baseball '90 PREVIEW : REVIEW : From Abbott to Blyleven, '89 Was Pleasant Surprise


The manager hadn't managed since 1985, the year he managed to alienate players, writers, fans and most of the state of Texas.

The catcher had a bad back and was booed out of Philadelphia.

The starting rotation consisted of a 38-year-old with a 5.43 earned-run average the year before, a former 15-game winner who hadn't completed a full season since 1986, a former relief pitcher coming off a 9-15 season and a one-handed rookie who had never pitched a professional inning.

The bullpen ace had undergone offseason elbow surgery.

And the rest of the team had just completed the previous season by losing its last 12 games, establishing a franchise record.

Yeah, just the blueprint for a 91-win season.

A walking, talking worst-case scenario for nearly three decades, the Angels, for once, were pleasant surprises in 1989. After back-to-back finishes of 75-87, after running through three managers in seven months and after striking out in highly publicized bids for free agents Nolan Ryan and Bruce Hurst, the Angels defied the odds 91 times to produce the third-best record in club history.

The Angels were a mess in the winter of 1988. In March, they had been managed by Gene Mauch. In April, it was Cookie Rojas. In October, Moose Stubing. Seeking to stabilize the position, the Angels in November handed the job to Doug Rader, who had wreaked havoc with the Texas Rangers during a stormy 2 1/2-year reign as manager.

Other course corrections included trades for a burned-out Bert Blyleven (10-17, 5.43) and a past-prime Lance Parrish (.215), the Kansas City defection of Gold Glove catcher Bob Boone and the multi-million dollar signing of 34-year-old outfielder Claudell Washington.

This, clearly, was a team desperately seeking anything. They put a rookie outfielder named Dante Bichette in their opening day lineup. When they put another rookie, one-handed Olympic hero Jim Abbott, in the starting rotation, they were assailed for publicity mongering.

Then, on opening day, the Angels hosted the Chicago White Sox and something strange happened.

No, they didn't win. Nothing that strange.

They fought.

After yielding a home run to Harold Baines, Angel reliever Bob McClure retaliated with a brushback pitch. Soon, both dugouts had emptied and McClure was ejected, but not before having made a point.

After giving up on the 1988 season 12 games early, the Angels had begun the 1989 season by not giving in.

Rader seized the moment and built around it. Together with Parrish and pitching coach Marcel Lachemann, he implemented a new, aggressive, pitch-inside philosophy and the dividends paid off, almost across the board.

Chuck Finley, an uncertain first-year starter with a 9-15 record and a 4.17 ERA in 1988, pitched his way onto the American League All-Star team. Despite missing almost a month with a late-season ankle injury, Finley finished with a 16-9 record, a 2.57 ERA and 156 strikeouts.

Kirk McCaskill, winner of just 12 games during injury-marred 1987 and 1988 seasons, went 15-10 with a 2.93 ERA and pitched a one-hitter.

Abbott, making the quantum leap from college baseball to the major leagues, won five of his first eight decisions, shut out the Boston Red Sox twice and finished an even 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA.

And then there was Blyleven. Coming off his worst big-league season at age 38, Blyleven responded with what might have been his best. He went 17-5 and sliced his ERA nearly in half from 5.43. He threw five shutouts. He ended Angel losing streaks of five and seven games and recorded nine of his victories after Angel defeats.

Only Mike Witt remained a wallflower. His post-1986 decline continued in 1989, as Witt finished 9-15 with a 4.54--his worst marks since 1983.

And it was pitching that kept the Angels ahead or abreast of Oakland through the season's first five months, despite a maddening stop-and-go offense.

The Angels led the American League in home runs (145), with eight players in double figures, a team record.

They also finished 12th in runs scored (669), 11th in batting average (.256), 13th in doubles (208), last in walks (429) and last in strikeouts (1,011).

For every plus in the Angel batting order, there was a minus that, as often as not, canceled it.

--Wally Joyner. Plus: A .282 batting average. Minus: Just 16 home runs and a career-low 79 RBIs.

--Johnny Ray. Plus: A .289 batting average and 62 RBIs. Minus: Just 16 doubles, ending a seven-year streak of 30 or more.

--Jack Howell: Plus: 20 home runs. Minus: A .228 batting average--.140 versus left-handers--and 125 strikeouts.

--Chili Davis. Plus: A team-high 22 home runs and 90 RBIs. Minus: A total of 109 strikeouts.

--Devon White. Plus: A career-high 44 stolen bases. Minus: A career-low .245 average and 129 strikeouts.

--Brian Downing. Plus: A .283 average, his highest since 1980. Minus: Just 14 home runs, his lowest full-season total since 1979.

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