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Erstad's Big Lift Carries Angels

May 29, 2000|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If you looked at a spray chart tracking Angel outfielder Darin Erstad's home runs this season, there would be one black blob beyond the right-center field fence.

That's because every one of Erstad's 10 home runs--including the three-run shot he hit in the fifth inning Sunday to spark the Angels' 8-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals before 23,645 in Kauffman Stadium--has landed in almost the exact same area.

"I can't explain it," said Erstad, who has four home runs in his last six games. "I'm not trying to place them. The funny thing is, even if the pitch is away, it still goes to the same spot. All I know is it's better than popping up, so I'm not gonna complain."

The Angels were trailing, 2-0, Sunday when Erstad came up against Royal starter Miguel Batista after Matt Walbeck walked and Keith Luuloa singled in the fifth.

Erstad lofted a 1-2 pitch 408 feet over the wall in right-center for a home run to ignite a six-run outburst that included back-to-back-to-back home runs by Mo Vaughn (his American League-leading 18th), Tim Salmon (11th) and Garret Anderson (13th).

Erstad, whose homer Saturday night landed right where Sunday's shot did, also singled in the first and third innings and added a two-run single in the eighth, giving pitcher Brian Cooper plenty of support.

Cooper gave up three runs--only one earned--and six hits in eight innings, striking out four and walking one, to earn his second consecutive victory and help the Angels avoid a sweep by the Royals.

The victory did not come without a scare. Mike Fyhrie replaced Cooper to start the ninth with an 8-3 lead, and the Royals loaded the bases with one out. Left-hander Mike Holtz came on to face the left-handed-hitting Johnny Damon, but Damon slapped a run-scoring single to left to make it 8-4.

Angel Manager Mike Scioscia then went to right-hander Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who got Carlos Febles to hit into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play for his second save and the Angels' first win by more than three runs since April 26.

"They had the tying run at the plate in the ninth after we had an 8-2 lead," Scioscia said. "I don't think there's anything such as an easy win."

Nor is there an easy out at the top of the Angel order anymore. Opposing pitchers had little trouble with Erstad in 1999, when he hit .253 with 13 homers and 53 runs batted in, but the leadoff batter leads the league with a .387 average this season.

He has a team-leading 40 runs and 35 RBIs and has regained his power stroke to the gap in right-center.

"I guess that's where my strong spot is," Erstad said. "When I get a good pitch to hit, my normal swing is going to put the ball where I hit the strongest. Last year, my strong spot was a ground ball to second base."

Erstad is on a pace to hit 32 homers and drive in 113 runs, which shouldn't come as too much of a shock--he hit .313 with 18 homers and 59 RBIs in the first half of 1998 and made the all-star team.

"He may not be in a [home run] class with some guys on this club, but he has the ability to drive the ball," Scioscia said. "For him to hit 20 homers is not out of the question. He's locked in."

The key for Erstad, Scioscia believes, is to maintain his normal approach and swing.

"There's nothing he's consciously doing [to hit homers] because his game is line drives, hitting the gaps and setting the table," Scioscia said. "His contribution to the club is scoring runs, whether it's hitting himself in or getting on base and letting someone else hit him in."

Cooper's contributions to the club have been huge, providing a much-needed boost to an injury-ravaged rotation. Sunday, he retired 10 straight from the fourth through seventh innings and never seemed rattled, despite falling behind early.

"He threw a great game, man," Vaughn said. "He got down early but continued to pitch aggressively with a good fastball. He had good focus and composure through the good and bad. If you can do that through tough times you'll be successful, because we have a lineup that can come back in games."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fifty-Fifty

Comparison of key statistics after 50 games for the Angels and their batters from this season and 1999:

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CATEGORY 2000 1999 RECORD 26-24 24-26 GAMES BEHIND 1/2 5 1/2 BATTING AVG. .291 .262 HOME RUNS 82 63 RBIs 268 219 STRIKEOUTS 307 320 ON BASE % .362 .323

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