Angels shortstop Erick Aybar races out of the batter's box after hitting… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Arlington, Texas
Erick Aybar said his struggles last season were a learning experience. And he's clearly putting those lessons to good use, leading all big-league shortstops with a .351 average after going three for four Sunday with a season-best three runs batted in.
"Last year, I took too many pitches. Now I'm a little more aggressive," said Aybar, who is seeing 3.3 pitches per plate appearance this season, down a quarter-pitch from last year when he became overly patient in the leadoff role.
Aybar has also hit safely in a career-best 13 straight games and is batting .343 since coming off the disabled list 31/2 weeks ago — all of which have helped swell his confidence.
"It's consistency when I get to home plate," he said. "See the ball, swing the bat. If the pitch is outside, go the other way. I'm seeing everything. I'm seeing the ball good."
He's also mashing the ball well: One of his three hits Sunday was a 406-foot home run to center field on a changeup.
Manager Mike Scioscia has been widely criticized for sticking with Jeff Mathis despite a career batting average of .199.
On Sunday, Scioscia offered an impassioned defense.
"You guys have seen him every day. You know he's hitting the ball harder than his numbers are showing. Anybody disagree with that?" Scioscia challenged a group of reporters. "Controlling that defensive side is critical. Jeff is terrific defensively.
"He's probably not going to hit .300, but he shouldn't be hitting .200."
Scioscia, an All-Star catcher in his playing days, considers Mathis to be one of the top defensive catchers in the majors — and he made a terrific play to get Texas' Craig Gentry on an attempted bunt in the fourth inning Sunday.
But coming out of the last homestand, Angels pitchers have fared just as well with rookie Hank Conger behind the plate — Mathis' catcher's earned-run average was 3.25, Conger's 3.31. There's a wider separation on the offensive side, though, where the switch-hitting Conger is batting .282 with a .451 slugging percentage and a .338 on-base percentage; Mathis' statistics are .195, .286 and .213.
As for the only numbers that really matter — wins and losses — the Angels are 11-9 when Mathis starts, 10-9 when Conger starts.
Scott Kazmir hasn't pitched in the majors since the opening weekend and it doesn't look as if he'll be back any time soon. Kazmir struggled in his latest outing at the Angels' complex in Arizona and the team is uncertain when — or if — he'll start a minor league rehab assignment.
The team is just as uncertain about the near-term future of Vernon Wells, who went on the disabled list a week ago with a pulled groin.
"We're not going to get a read on this thing for a couple of more weeks," Scioscia said. "The soreness has diminished. But until he can get into some kind of active rehab, you're not really going to be able to test it."
Wells, who was hitting .183 when he went out, was walking around the clubhouse with a pronounced limp Saturday but seemed better Sunday.