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Kendrick comes up empty

Angels second baseman has failed in clutch chances that could have turned the tables against Boston

October 05, 2008|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON -- The Angels appear to be one bat shy of World Series caliber . . . again.

Only this October, that bat doesn't belong to a slugger the Angels failed to acquire at the trade deadline. It's right in their dugout rack and belongs to a player in their current employ, Howie Kendrick.

With two timely hits from Kendrick in the first two games of the American League division series, the Angels could be leading the Boston Red Sox, two games to none, instead of trailing, 0-2, the predicament they face going into Game 3 today in Fenway Park.

But Kendrick, a .306 hitter known for his gap power and ability to square balls up with remarkable regularity, hasn't hit a ball hard all series.

The second baseman, who sat out the first three weeks of September because of a left hamstring strain and had six games -- and 15 at-bats -- in the final week of the season to prepare for the playoffs, is hitless in nine at-bats with five strikeouts.

The burden of the Angels' 2-0 deficit shouldn't fall entirely on Kendrick. Shortstop Erick Aybar is hitless in nine at-bats, and the bottom four batters are a combined two for 31 (.065) in the series, a stark contrast to three-four-five hitters Mark Teixeira, Vladimir Guerrero and Torii Hunter, who are a combined 14 for 23 (.609).

But Kendrick's timing has been terrible.

In the Angels' 4-1 loss in Game 1 on Wednesday in Anaheim, Kendrick grounded out with the bases loaded to end the first inning and grounded out with two on to end the third.

In the Angels' 7-5 loss in Game 2 on Friday, Kendrick flied out with two on in the fifth inning, struck out with the bases loaded in the seventh and struck out to end the game.

Kendrick, who averaged one strikeout per 6.2 plate appearances during the regular season, whiffed four times in Game 2.

Three came on low-and-away sliders that were well out of the strike zone, hapless at-bats that were reminiscent of Guerrero in the 2005 AL Championship Series, when the Chicago White Sox limited the too-anxious slugger to one hit in 20 at-bats.

Kendrick has stranded 13 runners in two games, but when asked whether he would consider replacing the second baseman in his Game 3 lineup, Manager Mike Scioscia didn't waver.

"Howie is going to play," Scioscia said. "He swung the bat well the last week of the season. He's hit a little soft spot now, but this guy can hit. He needs to plow through this if we're going to get where we want to be."

Kendrick said he is simply trying to do too much.

"I need to relax and play the game," he said. "It's the same game, I'm just not looking at it right. I have to work it out and evaluate some things, and put the ball in play with runners in scoring position."

Pitch recognition is the key. Kendrick can pulverize a good fastball, but he needs to lay off that slider that starts on the outside corner and breaks down and away.

"He's not recognizing it," hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "You want to hit so bad, but his zone is too far out in front of it. He needs to back off and just be himself, play the game.

"I know Teixeira and Torii have talked to him, they're trying to keep him going. A lot of guys have taken him aside and tried to pump him up a bit. Sometimes the game gets frustrating, but you just have to relax and not put too much pressure on yourself."

Hunter said he could tell after Game 2 that Kendrick was beating himself up a bit.

"You try to give him words of encouragement," Hunter said. "You have a lot of energy, but it's still a game. We're trying to get him to calm down a little bit and play his game."

That won't be easy today against right-hander Josh Beckett, who earned World Series most-valuable-player honors with the Florida Marlins in 2003, is 6-2 with a 1.73 earned-run average in 10 career playoff starts and threw a four-hit shutout against the Angels in Game 1 of the 2007 division series.

The Angels will counter with left-hander Joe Saunders, who was 17-7 with a 3.41 ERA this season and 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA in three starts against Boston.

It will be a rematch of a July 30 game in Boston, when Saunders gave up two runs and five hits in six innings of a 9-2 Angels win, and Beckett was rocked for eight runs and 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings.

Garret Anderson hit a two-run single and a two-run home run against Beckett, who was nursing a sore elbow at the time and is now recovering from a strained rib-cage muscle.

The Angels should be buoyed by the fact they swept a three-game series here in late July and had the best road record (50-31) in the major leagues.

But only one team has come back to win a five-game series after losing the first two games at home, the 2001 New York Yankees over the Oakland Athletics, and only five of the 35 teams that have lost the first two games in a division series have come back to win.

"It's tough when you're down 0-2, but we have a lot of confidence that we're going to play well and that we're in the series," Scioscia said Saturday.

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