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Angels hope Vladimir Guerrero this time will be their Mr. October

After some lackluster performances in division series, the team's cleanup batter just wants to stay healthy.

October 06, 2009|Mike DiGiovanna

Vladimir Guerrero has worn a Superman T-shirt under his jersey for years, and considering how many leap-tall-buildings-in-a-single-bound moments he's had during a probable Hall of Fame career, he's the one Angels player who can get away with it.

Come October, though, the Angels would prefer Guerrero be more like Clark Kent. No superhuman feats required. Just hit something close to your .321 career average. Drive in a few runs. Hit some balls into the gaps. Knock an occasional ball over the wall.

"At times, you have to take what the pitcher is giving you," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said, "and it's not always going to be a mistake you can hit 480 feet."

The playoffs have been Kryptonite to Guerrero, who hit a score-tying grand slam in Game 3 of the 2004 American League division series against the Boston Red Sox but has driven in one run in 17 postseason games since.

But in 2008, Guerrero, who has 407 home runs and 1,318 runs batted in over a distinguished 13-year career, finally seemed to adjust to the klieg-light-bright October stage, hitting .467 in a four-game division series loss to the Red Sox.

Yes, six of his seven hits were singles, and he did not drive in a run, but there were far more quality at-bats -- he even walked four times -- and fewer of the wild, seemingly out-of-control swings that marked so many of Guerrero's previous forays into October.

"It was really being more selective and having a better understanding of what the lineup looked like," Guerrero said through an interpreter. "It's experience too, not trying to do too much.

"Even though the run production and RBIs weren't there, by getting on base, I was creating something. Hopefully this year, it will create more runs.

"Your first experience in the playoffs, you don't know what to expect, and I was trying to do a little too much. But there's no comparison to how I felt back then to the way I feel now."

Physically, too. A shoulder injury slowed Guerrero in 2005, when he hit .050 (one for 20) in an AL Championship Series loss to the Chicago White Sox, his only RBI coming on a groundout.

In 2007 sore knees and a triceps strain hampered Guerrero, who hit .200 (two for 10) with no RBIs in a division series loss -- yes, to the Red Sox.

And even last season, when Guerrero, now 34, found his playoff stroke, he was hobbled by a left-knee injury that required surgery over the winter.

Though he was limited by a torn chest muscle and a knee injury to 100 games this season, Guerrero, the Angels' designated hitter and cleanup batter, is as close to 100% physically as he has been in any October.

And that could bode well for the Angels, who open another division series against the Red Sox -- it's the fourth time in six years the teams have met in the first round, with Boston winning the previous three series -- Wednesday or Thursday at Angel Stadium.

"Last year my knee was so stiff, everyone knew how limited I was," said Guerrero, who hit .295 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs this season. "This year, I feel way better. I feel very confident going into this series. I think things are going to change."

Guerrero's future, both with the Angels and in baseball, could hinge on it.

The six-year, $85-million contract Guerrero signed with the Angels before 2004, a season in which he won AL most-valuable-player honors, expires after the season.

And as last winter showed, these are not good economic times for free agents in their mid-30s, especially those who spend more time in the breakdown lane and can no longer play the outfield on a regular basis.

The Angels have more than Guerrero to think about, with several difficult free-agent decisions ahead this winter, including John Lackey, Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu.

But a strong postseason could change the perception baseball and the Angels have of Guerrero.

"There is definitely a focus on how guys perform in the postseason," Scioscia said. "It will enhance your position if you play well, because a player's reputation for performing in big games is very important in having more clubs interested in signing a guy. . . .

"When he's feeling good and is comfortable in the box, he can still light it up. Hopefully, he'll find his rhythm in the playoffs."

Guerrero is not focused on his future.

"I don't want to put too much emphasis on that," he said. "I just ask God to give me health."

But he makes no effort to hide his desire to return.

"I'm going to be very honest -- I love playing here," Guerrero said. "From my family's comfort, to my teammates, to the way I've been treated here, to the winning . . . I love it.

"But I also understand the business side of things. I'm open to returning if they want me back. If I have the choice, yeah, I don't want to move."

Guerrero's storybook ending: Win his first World Series championship and then sign an extension that allows him to finish his career with the Angels.

"The emotion I feel when we win the division, it's hard to describe," Guerrero said. "I can't even imagine what it would be like to go all the way, to say we are the champions. Is it important to win? Of course."

Guerrero, who played his first seven seasons in Montreal, doesn't know how many more years he has left in this game. He only knows he isn't done yet.

"One thing for sure," Guerrero said, "is I have a lot of baseball in front of me."

Wherever he plays in 2010, it will probably be as a U.S. citizen. After years of traveling between the U.S. and his native Dominican Republic on work visas, Guerrero has begun the process of applying for U.S. citizenship, one he expects to complete this winter.

"Mainly, it's like a thankful gesture from me and my whole family to the U.S. for all the opportunities that have been provided for us," Guerrero said. "After traveling back and forth so much on visas, it's only right that we try to do the right thing."

--

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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