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Hunter feels for Matthews

May 20, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna and Bill Shaikin | Times Staff Writers

He is the reason Gary Matthews Jr. was forced to adjust to a completely different role this season, so it would be only natural for Torii Hunter to feel a little bit responsible for his friend's struggles.

The Angels signed Matthews two winters ago, giving him five years and $50 million, telling him and everyone else they needed a premium defensive center fielder.

He played fine defense and he hit .252 with 18 home runs, second on the team to Vladimir Guerrero. Then the Angels, in need of a big bat last winter and unwilling to bid $300 million just for the right to talk to Alex Rodriguez, signed Hunter for five years and $90 million.

Hunter, a seven-time Gold Glove winner, moved into center field. Matthews was moved out, to a hybrid role. The 33-year-old plays some left field, a little center field, a little right field, a lot of designated hitter.

And he struggles to hit, his average at .223 overall and .211 at DH as the Angels open a series tonight in Toronto. Matthews had 27 at-bats at DH before this season; he has 38 this season.

"That has to have something to do with it," Hunter said. "I'm pretty sure he's never been a DH before, and for me, I hate it. I know I have other tools, and when you DH, you're limited to one. That's hard."

Manager Mike Scioscia has alternatives in Reggie Willits and Juan Rivera, but for now he says he is committed to Matthews. He is second on the team in home runs and walks, but he leads the team in strikeouts, and his .349 slugging percentage would be a career low over a full season.

"His power numbers are going to be a plus as we move through the season," Scioscia said. "He's been productive for a guy that hasn't locked in at the plate. There's a lot more in Gary that will hopefully come to the surface."

Matthews has driven in 24 runs, two more than Guerrero, the same as Hunter, two fewer than team leader Casey Kotchman. He has 41 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Guerrero 42, Hunter 40, Kotchman 39.

"The production is good. I'm not unhappy with that," Matthews said, "but I just want to be consistent.

"That's the way it goes early. It doesn't make you feel any better when you say it. But the law of averages says sooner or later you'll turn it around.

"Look at Garret [Anderson], where he was when we were in Kansas City and where he is now." Anderson has raised his average from .222 to .288 in that span of two weeks.

In spring training, Matthews said he would accept his new role because he knew Hunter, a long-time friend, would improve the team.

"He's a welcome addition," Matthews said then. "We need his bat."

Now, Hunter said, there is "no doubt" Matthews has been mentally affected by the adjustment to more of a utility role.

"He's a good dude," Hunter said. "I hate to see him going through what he's going through.

"But I know he's going to get out of it, and when he does, it's going to look good. He's going to help us."

Hunter and Matthews socialize regularly -- they are neighbors in Newport Coast -- but one subject that doesn't come up is the upheaval Hunter caused by taking Matthews' center field job.

"I don't get caught up in all the negativity; we just talk as friends, like we were before," Hunter said. "I try to be positive. I know he's going to get through this. He's a strong man."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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