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BASEBALL EXTRA | BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

Fiery Phillips Fits in With Angels

May 19, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

Credit Bill Bavasi, the Angel general manager, with showing some of the same aggressiveness that his team has recently.

His re-acquisition of Tony Phillips, along with veteran catcher Chad Kreuter, carries only positive ramifications for the Angels, who have won seven in a row, five of them coming from behind.

No longer do the Angels appear to be simply killing time away from daddy and mommy in Newport Beach, as Tony Taveras, the club president, said of the 1996 team.

Feeding off the intensity of Manager Terry Collins, the Angels have been displaying some true grit, and the emotional Phillips enhances that attribute. He gives the club another uniform-dirtying player of the Dave Hollins and Jim Leyritz ilk, and he provides a lot more.

With 4 1/2 months to play, no one is suggesting the Angels start taking October ticket orders, but this is a team that might actually belong in the same company as AL West favorites Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, rather than Rollerblading on the Newport strand.

Certainly, in reacquiring Phillips from the Chicago White Sox at the modest price of catcher Jorge Fabregas and relief pitcher Chuck McElroy, Bavasi wasn't simply making a change for the sake of change.

He was looking to improve the Angels' playoff aspirations, letting his players know that management is impressed by their performance and will support it, which hasn't always happened in Anaheim.

His timing was also propitious.

The Angels open a three-game series with the Mariners tonight with a chance to make a statement.

Bavasi offered one, saying he regards the Mariners as the team to beat.

"We want to stay close, make them uncomfortable, nip at their heels, hope they trip over a rock and we run over them," he said. "I'm inspired and motivated by the job Seattle did on us in '95."

He referred to the Mariner comeback from a 13-game second-half deficit, ultimately beating the Angels to win the West in a one-game playoff.

"I hope we continue to be overlooked [as the Mariners tended to be until they caught the Angels]," he said, knowing it will be hard to overlook the Angels if they sustain their recent play, and that it is hard to overlook any team that has the fiery Phillips wearing his emotions on his sleeves.

His leadership--in the clubhouse and in the leadoff role--was a key factor in the Angels' title bid of '95, and Bavasi seemed to have erred in losing sight of that intangible aspect and allowing Phillips to leave as a free agent after that season.

Some in the organization might have felt then that Phillips allowed his emotions to get out of control at times, but he returns to a more mature team that is looking for him to contribute only on the field and does not need him to set a tone for younger players, a responsibility he assumed in '95.

His re-acquisition gives the club a prototype leadoff hitter who returned with a .440 on-base percentage. It allows the impressive Darin Erstad to move down in the batting order and continue his maturation as a major league hitter and first baseman, without also worrying about kick-starting the offense. It puts Eddie Murray and his .219 average on the bench, providing more offense in the designated hitter spot--slash-and-run, as opposed to home-run potential. It enhances the Angels' versatility, because Phillips can also play the outfield and second base.

And there's more. While the loss of McElroy leaves Mike Holtz as the only left-hander in the Angel bullpen, Holtz has been one of the club's most pleasant developments of the last two years, and the trade allows the Angels to carry a more realistic 11 pitchers, rather than 12, giving Collins another bat off the bench.

In addition, Kreuter, 32, the son-in-law of USC baseball Coach Mike Gillespie, is at a point in his career where he is more agreeable to a backup role than Fabregas, who never felt the Angels had complete confidence in his catching skills and recently participated in a clubhouse shouting match when he felt coach Rod Carew was questioning his pitch calling.

Why would the White Sox, slowly rebounding from a struggling start, deal a catalytic leadoff man like Phillips?

General Manager Ron Schueler said Sunday it had nothing to do with Phillips' criticism of Manager Terry Bevington the last two years or Phillips' recent comments that AL President Gene Budig was racially motivated when he suspended Phillips for two games after he was ejected for arguing with an umpire.

Schueler said second baseman Ray Durham is ready to move into the leadoff role, that Mike Cameron or Lyle Mouton is ready to replace Phillips in right field and that, because Phillips is 38 and eligible for free agency when the season ends, it was the right time to get something in return.

Fabregas, 27, gives the White Sox a younger option at catcher than Tony Pena, 39, and Ron Karkovice, 33 and still limited by an off-season knee operation, his fifth. Tony Castillo, Chicago's primary left-handed reliever, is on the disabled list, generating the need for McElroy.

Time will tell if this was one of those trades that helped both teams. It definitely helps the Angels.

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