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BILL DWYRE

Torii Hunter is set up to help Angels in last-gasp playoff charge

The old hand who always cheerfully does what is asked of him, changing positions and roles, has grabbed the reins as Angels have won six of their last seven. Six upcoming games with Oakland are key.

September 04, 2012|Bill Dwyre

Torii Hunter has the biggest smile in pro sports. No need for lights at Angel Stadium. Hunter brightens the place every time he steps onto the field.

Amazingly, in a 16th season in the major leagues that would test the mood and patience of anybody else, Hunter's smile has remained intact. Baseball seasons have ups and downs. Hunter's 2012 has been a roller-coaster ride.

He contributed to the Angels' 6-14 struggle out of the gate. Nearly everything he hit fell into an opponent's glove. Fortunately for him, his struggles attracted less attention because he was upstaged by the higher-paid, higher-profile struggling player named Albert Pujols.

Soon, the young savior arrived. Some of the Angels jokingly put a "Jesus" sign on Mike Trout's locker when he showed up April 28. There was no joking when 20-year-old Trout immediately started bashing American League pitching and the Angels went 18-11 in May. Hunter was further upstaged.

Not that the always-affable Hunter cared. This was a nine-time Gold-Glove-winning center fielder, who came as a free agent from the Minnesota Twins in 2008 and soon was being asked to move to right field. The Angels had a sprinter named Peter Bourjos and wanted to put his starting blocks in Hunter's spot in center.

Hunter said sure, anything to help the team.

Trout, as fast and with a more-lethal bat, replaced Bourjos, and Hunter stayed in right.

Then, in late May, Hunter got word that one of his sons had been charged with sexual assault back home in Texas. Hunter left the team for two weeks, saying, "I've sacrificed a lot for baseball, but I'm not sacrificing my family."

Hunter returned when things looked better on the home front and told a reporter recently that the case might be resolved in about 30 days.

By the time Hunter returned, Trout was on a tear that has yet to stop, Pujols had started to hit like Pujols and Mark Trumbo was putting dents in outfield seats all over the league. Hunter had become a bit of an afterthought in the Angels' offense. Pujols, Trumbo and Kendrys Morales flexed bigger muscles at the plate, making Hunter a fourth-wheel power threat. Most of his career, he had been a No. 3, 4 or 5 hitter. He hit 23 or more home runs eight times. His work had always been to clean up.

On June 8, Manager Mike Scioscia moved him to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. From there, you set up more than clean up.

The mandate was to make more contact and take fewer big swings. In retrospect, Scioscia had created the perfect offensive sandwich: Hunter between leadoff Trout and No. 3 Pujols. Hunter immediately took to it, and a batting average that was hanging around .230 is now among the best in the league. After hitting a single, a home run and driving in two runs Monday to help the Angels end Oakland's winning streak at nine games, he is batting .307.

Again, Hunter not only accepted the batting-order change but embraced it.

"It's fun not swinging hard," he says.

Now, with the Angels making their trophy dash for the playoffs and that 6-14 start still leaving them in a pickle for which they may have no pucker in the end, it is the old hand, whistle-while-you-work Hunter who has grabbed the reins. The Angels have won six of their last seven. In that span, Hunter has 28 at-bats, 15 hits and six runs batted in.

If Trout is the Natural, Hunter is the Reggie. But the Angels can't wait for a Mr. October. They need a September straw-stirring.

The Texas Rangers have run away with the division, making the wild-card race all that matters in Anaheim. The opponent for six of the next nine games is the Athletics. The games are the direct route — and last hope — for the Angels to salvage a season that began in high hopes and has chugged along in unexplainable mediocrity.

It may not be over until it is over, but the six remaining games with Oakland are pretty much the last gasp.

What a strange and interesting story it would be if it is Hunter, the taken-for-granted one, the man of yesteryear, who leads the playoff charge. He is 37, in the final year of a five-year contract that paid him $90 million, and now, somewhat of a puzzle for Angels management. Trout, Trumbo and Pujols are the future of the offense. Vernon Wells still has a lot of big paychecks coming, and Bourjos may be too fast and effective defensively to trade.

Hunter has said he wants to keep playing in Anaheim and hopes for a contract extension. He shrugs off age and cites good genes. He told a reporter his 65-year-old father can still dunk a basketball.

So what do you do with the player most popular with fans, most sought out and quoted by the media, and, currently, most productive at the most important point of the season?

A popular sports movie a few years ago answered that question. You show him the money.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

Times staff writer Mike DiGiovanna contributed to this column.

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