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Mr. April-September

If the Angels want to win the World Series, they'll need Vladimir Guerrero to start hitting as well in the playoffs as he does during the regular season

October 01, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Torii Hunter had admired Vladimir Guerrero from afar since 1996, when, as a Minnesota Twins minor leaguer, he came to appreciate the "old-school" sensibilities of the Montreal Expos prospect who played with the hard-nosed, leave-it-all-on-the-field kind of edge Hunter loved.

And it took only a few weeks as Angels teammates this season for Hunter to see why just about every player, coach or manager who has shared a big league clubhouse with Guerrero calls the 33-year-old slugger the most unassuming superstar in baseball.

"He doesn't act like a superstar," Hunter said. "Everybody knows him, but he doesn't act like it. He has no cockiness or selfishness. He's so humble. He doesn't want the spotlight. He's so down to earth it's crazy. And this guy is a sup-er-star."

Tonight, with the Angels opening the American League division series against the Boston Red Sox in Anaheim, would be a good time for Guerrero to start playing like one.

Unlike his fellow dreadlocked Dominican, Manny Ramirez, one of baseball's most accomplished playoff performers with a .376 on-base percentage, 24 home runs and 64 RBIs in 95 postseason games, Guerrero doesn't have much of a playoff pedigree.

From April through September, Guerrero's numbers are Hall of Fame worthy -- the 12-year-veteran has a .323 lifetime average, 392 home runs and 1,268 RBIs.

He had another solid 2008 season, batting .303 with a team-leading 27 homers and 91 RBIs, and batted .322 with 10 home runs and 37 RBI in 46 games after the Angels traded for Mark Teixeira. Guerrero joined Lou Gehrig as the only players in major league history to bat at least .300 with 25 homers for 11 consecutive seasons.

But October has not been as kind to Guerrero, who, in 16 playoff games, all with the Angels, has a .183 average, one home run and seven RBIs, four coming on one swing, a score-tying grand slam in Game 3 of the 2004 division series against the Red Sox, a game, and series, the Angels eventually lost.

The free-swinging Guerrero has a reputation for "hitting balls off his shoelaces or balls thrown at his face out of the park," Hunter said, and Seattle pitcher Jarrod Washburn said Guerrero "can hit any pitch out of the park -- off-speed, fastball in off the plate, away off the plate, down, up . . . he's a freak."

But with little lineup protection in 2004, 2005 and 2007, opposing pitchers expanded the strike zone beyond even Guerrero's considerable reach, feeding him high-and-tight fastballs and breaking balls away -- often way away -- pitches that produced broken bats and weak ground balls.

In the 2005 AL championship series against the Chicago White Sox, Guerrero had one single in 20 at-bats for an .050 average.

In the 2007 division series against the Red Sox, the eight-time All-Star batted .200 (two for 10) with no RBIs and one walk.

Guerrero, in the final year of a five-year, $70-million contract that includes a $15-million option for 2009, denied feeling any pressure to carry the offensively challenged Angels through the playoffs in recent years.

"No, no, no, I never thought that," Guerrero said through an interpreter. "There are a lot of good players on the team. If everybody does his job, the work gets done."

But this October, Guerrero might not be job one for opponents, who won't have the luxury of pitching so far around the Angels' cleanup hitter.

Batting in front of Guerrero will be the switch-hitting Teixeira, who hit .358 with a .449 on-base percentage, 13 home runs and 43 RBIs in 54 games for the Angels after his July 29 trade from Atlanta.

And batting behind Guerrero will be Hunter, who hit .278 with 21 homers and 78 RBIs this season and has hit .300 with three homers, eight doubles and eight RBIs in 21 postseason games.

"Vlad was our guy, and we knew he wasn't going to get anything to hit because they're focused on not letting the guys who are supposed to beat you beat you," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "I think the difference this year is we've got a bunch of guys who can beat you, and that's going to help Vlad."

Boston Manager Terry Francona said the addition of Teixeira and Hunter could change how the Red Sox approach Guerrero.

"They're much more dangerous in the middle," Francona said during Tuesday's workout day in Angel Stadium. "They've always had the ability to run -- now you put a couple of bats in the middle that can leave the park.

"And Teixeira works the count very well. He makes you certainly think twice about doing something with Vlad. . . . It changes some of the ways you can attack hitters. Or not attack hitters."

Guerrero battled sore knees and a triceps strain last October and played Game 3 of the division series with a fist-sized welt on his shoulder blade, courtesy of a Manny Delcarmen fastball that hit him in Game 2. In the 2005 playoffs, Guerrero was slowed by a shoulder injury.

Guerrero sat out six games this September because of an irritated right knee, but the Angels clinched so early, Manager Mike Scioscia was able to rest and pace him entering October.

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