New Angels slugger Albert Pujols, left, shares a laugh with teammate Kendrys… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. -- It has been almost two years since Kendrys Morales played a competitive baseball game, but he expects to play one within a week to 10 days, a potentially momentous development for the Angels slugger and team.
The anticipation is hardly killing Morales, though.
"I think now that we're close, it's easier for me," Morales said through a translator before Saturday's 9-5 exhibition win over the San Francisco Giants in Tempe Diablo Stadium. "Last year, we thought we were close, but we were actually far. Now, I have no reason to worry. Everything feels good."
The cautious optimism surrounding Morales when he reported to camp three weeks ago has morphed into confidence the switch-hitter will actually return from a broken left ankle, a nasty injury he suffered while jumping into home plate in celebration of a walk-off home run on May 29, 2010.
Morales will run on the infield dirt without touching the bases for the second time Sunday. The first baseman's next steps will be to hit the bags while running the bases and to slide.
Morales never progressed past running in a straight line last spring, and in May he underwent a second season-ending surgery, in which doctors cleaned out debris and performed a bone graft. There have been no such setbacks this spring.
"Every day, I feel better," said Morales, who in 2009 hit .306 with 34 home runs and 108 runs batted in. "Nothing gets swollen. There's nothing bothersome in the ankle. I'm confident I'll play this season."
Manager Mike Scioscia said Morales would need "an absolute minimum of 30 at-bats" to be ready, but after such a long absence, the 28-year-old probably will need to see a lot more major league pitching to find his timing and stroke.
Morales can load up on at-bats in minor league games, but the Angels don't want to push him too hard too soon. That's why they haven't even introduced defensive drills to his program this spring.
It is very possible Morales will open the season on a minor league rehabilitation assignment before joining the Angels.
"The plan is to get him running full speed, playing in games, and then slowly spoon-feeding him defense after he's shown the ankle works," Scioscia said. "What's important is Kendrys' ability to swing the bat and run well enough to play the offensive game."
The hope is that Morales will be strong enough to bat cleanup behind Albert Pujols, which would give the Angels a dynamic middle-of-the-order duo and perhaps their most potent lineup ever.
That may take awhile.
"He needs to get re-acclimated to velocity — how long is that going to take? We'll see," Scioscia said. "There will be stiffness and soreness from competing. Those are issues he has to deal with, but we feel it's manageable."
Among Morales' biggest challenges will be running the bases aggressively and sliding without fear. He will not be asked to hit the bags with his right foot only.
"The idea is to hit the inside corner of the bag," Scioscia said. "It's going to be difficult without totally getting off stride to always hit the bag with his right foot. I don't think it will be practical."
Morales will let his instincts take over on the bases.
"I haven't done it yet, so I'm not sure how it will respond or how I'll feel," he said. "It's part of the process. I have to adjust to various things. It's been a year and a half since I've faced a pitcher or done any rigorous activities."
Limiting Morales to designated hitter will ease the physical demands on him.
"I think it should be easier," he said, "because I would only have to worry about hitting."