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The Inside Track | Xs and O's

Angels Use 'Small Ball' to Produce Big Results

September 14, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

Behind Mike Scioscia's managing style, the Angels have become one of the most feared "small ball" teams in baseball.

And it's really simple how they've done it. It starts with the Angels' ability to move runners, which was evident this week when they took three of four games from the Oakland A's in a big series at Anaheim's Edison Field.

The Angels kept the A's jumping in a variety of ways. If they weren't taking an extra base on an out, or stretching a single into a double, the Angels were scoring a run with a suicide squeeze bunt, as they did Wednesday night in a 6-5 comeback victory.

"It's a very aggressive style of baseball," said shortstop David Eckstein, the Angels' leadoff man. "We go out there and put pressure on the defense. We do things like laying down bunts, sacrificing, hit and runs--anything that makes them have to make plays. That's been the big key to our success."

The Angels certainly did not start off Wednesday's game the way they wanted.

With Oakland pitcher Cory Lidle doing a solid job of getting big outs, the A's took a 4-0 lead. The Angels, meanwhile, left four runners on base in the first three innings.

But instead of panicking and trying to hit home runs in every at-bat, the Angels stayed cool and stuck with their game plan, just as they have all season.

"We expect it from ourselves," said left fielder Garret Anderson, the club's leading home run hitter. "We don't feel any added pressure because we are not going out there trying to do anything that we are not capable of doing. We go about our business the same all of the time."

That's why it should not have been much of a surprise when the Angels rallied to get back into Wednesday's game with a big fourth inning.

Designated hitter Brad Fullmer got things going when he knocked a 2-2 pitch into the left-center field gap for a double. Scott Spiezio, who'd started at third base in place of Troy Glaus, followed with a single over the head of Oakland shortstop Miguel Tejada, scoring Fullmer.

Shawn Wooten continued the rally, hustling to turn a single into a double, giving the Angels runners on second and third with no out. Catcher Bengie Molina did his part, hitting a sacrifice fly to center that scored Spiezio and enabled Wooten to move to third.

With the A's lead cut to 4-2, Adam Kennedy stepped up and hit a blooper that bounced off Tejada's glove as Wooten scored. But the key to the play was Kennedy's determination to get to second base and not settle for a single.

"If we get down early, we know not to try and make up all the runs in one inning with one hit," Eckstein said. "We are not afraid to be aggressive running the bases. Look at AK, he gets a single and then the next thing you see, he's on second."

With Eckstein up next, the extra base Kennedy took became even bigger when Lidle bounced a 1-0 pitch in front of the plate. Without hesitation, Kennedy easily made it to third to set up a squeeze-play opportunity for Scioscia.

But the Angels didn't go with the play on Lidle's next pitch, which was a strike to move the count to 2-1 on Eckstein. That's when it turned into a cat-and-mouse game between Scioscia and Oakland Manager Art Howe.

"The squeeze is a play that is incredibly dependent on coordination and timing," said Scioscia, who has used this tactic at least five times this season. "When the elements come together and you feel good about it, then it's easy to go with it.

"But execution is the key. Maybe the guy on third doesn't get a good break and is a little late, or the bunt isn't perfect, or the infield is in and charging and able to make a play at the plate. There's also times when your guy breaks too early and the pitcher is able to read it and throws the ball up or has a pitchout. Those are times when you're not going to be able to get the bunt down."

With Lidle behind in the count, Scioscia called for the squeeze on the next pitch and Howe guessed right by having Lidle fake a throw to third, hoping to get the Angels to tip their hand.

Unfortunately for the A's, Kennedy and Eckstein were not fooled by the fake, Scioscia kept the play on, and it worked to perfection. Eckstein tapped a textbook bunt down the third base line and by the time Oakland catcher Greg Myers picked up the ball, Kennedy was already at the plate to tie the score at 4.

"You're just trying to get the ball down anywhere in fair territory," Eckstein said.

"With AK's speed, as long as you get the ball on the ground, he's going to be safe and that was my main objective. As soon as I hit it, I knew it was going to work. That's a great feeling, knowing that you've pulled off one of the most exciting plays in the game."

Added Scioscia, "Obviously, they had their antennas up because you could see they were trying to defense it. You try and get a count when the pitcher is concentrating on getting the ball across the plate. But although a pitcher can have squeeze in his mind, he doesn't want to be preoccupied with defending the squeeze and going ball 3 or 4 on the hitter."

The Angels went on to win on Wooten's two-out double in the seventh. It was their 12th win in 13 games.

That might surprise everyone but them.

"We have a bunch of guys that will do whatever it takes to help the team win," Eckstein said. "Other teams might not have that type of lineup, but we do. It's kind of funny, because [small ball] seemed to be going away from the game not too long ago, but I think it's starting to become [fashionable] again."

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