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BILL DWYRE

Gary Matthews Jr. gets his chance to have some fun

Angels outfielder is playing in Torii Hunter's absence, and the team has stayed hot.

July 25, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Gary Matthews Jr. is having a Charles Dickens kind of baseball season for the Angels. It's his best of times and worst of times.

Unfortunately for the 34-year-old outfielder, the latter has outweighed the former.

Matthews has started the last 13 games in center field. The Angels have won 11 of those. In Thursday night's 6-5 win over the Minnesota Twins, Matthews battled Twins closer Joe Nathan in the ninth, got him to a 3-2 count and then slapped a pitch to center field that cut the Twins' lead to 5-4.

The Komeback Kids were on their way again. When Mike Napoli drove across the winner in the 10th, it marked the 31st time this season that the Angels had spotted the other team a lead and gone on to win.

If the Angels were a racehorse, they'd be Seabiscuit. Opposing teams think of their relief pitchers as firemen. The Angels consider them gasoline.

Matthews' at-bat against the ace of the Twins' relief staff was typical of the current Angels. Stay patient. Work the count to 3 and 2. Then somehow slap the ball into an open crack for a base hit. Not only did Matthews do that, but he did so on a 90 mile-an-hour slider inches above the plate. That's a little like swatting a bullet with a pool cue.

For 10-year veteran Matthews, it was a good moment. The last 13 games have been good. Before Friday night's 0 for 4, he had batted .261 and had seven RBIs in that span.

It's been good because he has played, something he expected much more of when he came here as the starting center fielder after signing for five years and $50 million as a free agent after the 2006 season. That season, as a Texas Ranger, had been his best in the majors, with a .313 average, 79 RBIs and 19 home runs.

He was coming home to Southern California, closer to family and friends, especially to elderly grandparents. It would be here that he would run out a career just entering its prime.

He played 140 games in 2007, batted .252, drove in 72 runs and hit 18 homers. But he got hurt at the end of the season and missed the three-and-out playoffs against the Red Sox.

Then, last season, he tried to play on an injured knee and his numbers slipped badly. Torii Hunter had been acquired and immediately appeared to progress from star to superstar, so Matthews played more games in both right and left field than he did in center. The Cinderella story began to lose the other slipper.

This year, the Angels let veteran outfielder Garrett Anderson go but added another veteran, Bobby Abreu, to the mix. They also said Juan Rivera would be getting first shot at left field. So with Abreu in right and Hunter entrenched in center, Matthews was clearly the No. 4 or 5 outfielder, depending on how much Vlad Guererro was used as the designated hitter.

Matthews was left out and unhappy. Still is.

That's why recent events have made his situation so interesting. Hunter and Guerrero are out because of injuries and are a week or so from returning. Rivera also got hurt, but probably will be back this weekend.

With the big guns gone, the fly swatters took over. In their last 37 games, the Angels are 28-9. Everybody has contributed. Every game has been an event, a melodrama. No deficit is too big to overcome. No opposing pitcher too good to wear down.

And nobody is enjoying it more than Matthews.

"I just want to play. That's all," he says. "I love playing on a winning team, in front of 40,000 people every night. I love being in first place."

He says this is what he envisioned when he signed on here. He says he is capable of playing every day. And that's what makes this, despite the team's recent fun run and his role in it, still not the best of times.

"This has not been the easiest year," Matthews says.

He knows Hunter will return soon. He knows his likelihood of returning to an everyday player with the Angels is not good. So he sits in limbo, wanting to be traded, while understanding the Angels' reason for not doing so, for needing the depth he provides and facing a tough sell in this economy with $20 million left on his contract.

But he is determined to stay the course with as much dignity as possible.

"Some players who aren't playing blow up the clubhouse," Matthews says. "I don't want to look back in 10 years and wish I had handled things differently."

He also doesn't want to look back in 10 years and remember the view from anywhere but center field.

"Everybody wants to play," he says. "These are my prime years, and I don't want to spend them sitting on a bench. I know how they feel, and they know how I feel. We are agreeing to disagree."

For Matthews, Friday night was a better time. He was part of a bizarre Angels moment. They came from ahead to win.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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