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Rivera is back, with no regrets

September 03, 2007|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The pins remain in his lower leg, a metal reminder of the broken left tibia he suffered in a Venezuelan winter league game Dec. 22, an injury that required major surgery and wiped out five months of his 2007 season.

Regrets? Juan Rivera doesn't even have a few.

"I've always played winter ball because I felt it would help me," said Rivera, who was activated Sunday and made his 2007 debut in right field. "I won't play this winter because I want to strengthen up my leg. But I will play in 2008-09. That [injury] could have happened here too."

Rivera, hurt in a collision with a pitcher covering first base, spent seven months rehabilitating the leg and three weeks at triple-A Salt Lake, hitting .261 in 61 at-bats.

In July, when the Angels went 12-12 and hit a few offensive lulls, Rivera, who hit .310 with 23 home runs and 85 runs batted in last season, was seen as something of a savior, a guy who could give the team a needed power boost.

But Garret Anderson got healthy and began driving the ball last month, Kendry Morales got hot in late August, Reggie Willits continued to excel until a late-month slump, and the Angels, with their clutch hitting and aggressive baserunning, discovered they didn't need to hit home runs to win, going 18-11 in August.

Suddenly, Rivera looks more like a fallback than an essential piece.

"A lot of guys have had opportunities because of injuries, and they've taken advantage," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "A healthy Juan Rivera certainly would have brought power to our club we might not have had, but our team had to morph into this style of baseball, and they've done well. But creating offense in the batter's box is still important, and it would be a big lift if Juan could give us some of that."

Rivera, who received a lengthy ovation before his first at-bat Sunday, said he's playing at about "95%," and that his leg still "bothers me a little bit when I run." He grounded into a double play, struck out and lined out to right field before being removed in the eighth inning for defensive purposes.

Will it be tough for Rivera to crack this lineup?

"Yeah, but I'm here, and I'm playing already," he said. "I will try to help the team as much as I can."

Jeff Mathis lost five pounds Saturday catching on a 99-degree afternoon, but he was hydrated and behind the plate again Sunday, his 31st start in 34 games in place of injured Mike Napoli.

Is the rookie worn out?

"No man, I like it, being part of this has been fun," Mathis said. "I really hadn't even thought about [how much I've been playing] until [Saturday] because it was so hot. My body feels great. Some days I wake up more sore than others, but it's nothing you can't stretch out."

Mathis looked fresh in the third inning Sunday, hitting his third homer of the season, a two-run shot, to left field to tie the score, 2-2.

"It's always something you want to keep your eye on," Scioscia said. "When we feel he needs a day off, he'll get it, but right now he's holding up pretty well and playing terrific baseball."

To make room for Rivera on the 40-man roster, the Angels designated reliever Greg Jones for assignment. . . . Vladimir Guerrero tied his 2005 franchise record with his 26th intentional walk of the season in the fifth inning Sunday.


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