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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Situation Gets Even Cloudier for the Angels

June 22, 2003|Ross Newhan

For the Angels, the memory of October continued to fade amid the gloom of a June Saturday and a 4-2 loss to the Dodgers.

The World Series champions would collect three hits and score once against the virtually impregnable Eric Gagne in the ninth inning, but moral victories are not what they need as they approach the midpoint of a 162-game schedule.

They need the real thing, but they have lost seven of their last nine games, are 35-37 only a year after being 42-29 on this date, and they have generally become spectators to the division and wild-card races.

The inconsistency that has haunted the Angels for almost three months now continued in this latest loss. Another starting pitcher contributed to another early deficit, and the offense wasted several chances to rally against the Andy Ashby/Wilson Alvarez back end of the Dodger rotation.

Only two days after Tim Salmon, concerned about his team's direction and focus, had called a players-only meeting in Seattle, Angel Manager Mike Scioscia conducted his own team meeting, seemingly at odds with his postgame contention that he hasn't seen any of his players coming to the park burdened by the previous game's "baggage."

Said batting coach Mickey Hatcher: "It was a positive meeting. We simply wanted to remind them that what we're going through right now is part of the game. We also wanted to remind them that part of our game is making things happen, not waiting for them to happen.

"Basically, we've performed poorly in that regard. We're not playing aggressively, not playing Angel baseball. We became world champions with a style of play that attracted national attention. Win or lose, we have to get back to that."

It's a team game, but the burden of that style falls heaviest on the catalytic top of the Angel lineup, and no one feels the weight of that burden more than leadoff man David Eckstein.

A year ago, when he was batting .293 with a .363 on-base percentage during the regular season and collecting 25 hits in 16 postseason games, more than one manager and/or opposing pitcher identified the smallest Angel as a pest.

Now, they have been doing a consistent job of eradicating him.

Eckstein was hitless in five at-bats Saturday. He is hitting .232 for the season, .175 in June. He has two hits in his last 27 at-bats, his on-base percentage dropping below .320.

No longer a problem for opposing managers, he has become one for his own.

"We need the leadoff guy to [provide] tangible production," Scioscia said, hinting that he would probably give Eckstein today off.

The alternatives: several days off or another spot in the lineup.

"I want to play," Eckstein said. "I definitely don't want to sit."

Eckstein, of course, wouldn't be the overachiever he is, wouldn't have got this far if he had any other attitude, if he wasn't a self motivator.

"What I'm going through right now is brutal," he said. "I don't know if it would be any less magnified if we were winning. I've always put pressure on myself and I don't know if the pressure now is any more than what I've put on myself every day of my life.

"I just feel bad for my teammates. My job is to get on base, and I haven't done that at all.

"It's a challenge, and I've got to meet it, but I feel comfortable at the plate, very close to where I need to be. I'm fine, physically and mentally."

Said Scioscia: "He's one of the best leadoff hitters in the league and I'm confident he'll get back to that level. The question becomes, do you give him a blow or let him grind through it? I don't have a timetable, but there's a cutoff point in any [situation] where there's a need for adjustment."

In what has been a disappointing title defense, Eckstein isn't alone. The Angels have need for more than one adjustment.

Switch-hitter Scott Spiezio, arguably his team's MVP last year, is batting .258 compared to .285 last year and has been virtually silent from the right side, where his 2002 contributions were pivotal in several ways.

Adam Kennedy, who batted .312 last year and is now at .258, has three hits in his last 29 at-bats; Salmon three in his last 26; Troy Glaus (sidelined Saturday by back spasms) two in his last 27 and Darin Erstad, still affected by the hamstring problem that sidelined him for 42 games (he was lifted for a pinch-runner in the ninth inning) five in his last 22.

The struggling offense has merely compounded almost a half season of inconsistency by the starting pitchers.

John Lackey, so impressive after his second-half recall last year, gave up four runs in the first inning Saturday and worked only four innings in absorbing his seventh loss in 11 decisions, his earned-run average inflating to 5.92, leaving the starters with a 27-32 record and an ERA of 4.96.

"We're still looking for that right combination," said Scioscia, referring to a combination of good pitching and hitting. "It gets a little frustrating when you don't see it fall into place, but we all still believe in this club, there's no need to rewrite the book. We just need some of the guys to fall into a more consistent and productive style of play. The challenge is to stay focused, bring our game on a daily basis."

The one-day-at-a-time mantra worked so well last year, but last year is fast becoming a distant memory.

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