Morales' absence having profound effect
Angels try nine different first basemen, but can't replace leader
OAKLAND -- Imagine the Cardinals without Albert Pujols, the Reds without Joey Votto. Think of the Padres without Adrian Gonzalez, the Phillies without Ryan Howard, the Yankees without Mark Teixeira.
Here are the Angels without Kendry Morales.
They've come to September, to a weekend meeting with the Athletics at Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, in third place in the American League West. Division-leading Texas is barely visible, leading the Angels by 10 1/2 games.
For a proud club that has ruled the AL West for three consecutive seasons and five of the past six, this is humbling indeed.
Every day, Angels manager Mike Scioscia is asked to explain how it has happened. He speaks in generalities, about underachievement in a lot of areas from a wide variety of sources. He usually spares the pitching staff and focuses on an offense that has fallen and can't seem to get up. The defense isn't spared the boss' criticism for its uneven play.
What rarely is mentioned any more is the loss of Morales, since it happened so long ago. It was May 29 when the first baseman landed awkwardly on home plate at Angel Stadium in the midst of a grand-slam celebration and was unable to walk off, as that brand of heroics has come to be identified.
Carried-off game-winners are no fun at all, the Angels discovered.
"He's a superstar-caliber player," Angels second baseman Howard Kendrick said. "He's basically like Albert Pujols. He was starting to put up those types of numbers, have that kind of impact. He was on that track. What would the Cardinals be like without Pujols?"
It might be overstatement to suggest that the season ended with Morales' crash landing and extensive surgery on his lower left leg. But it also might not be far from the truth.
While it's true that the Angels came together in the immediate aftermath of his stunning loss, winning 21 of 30, it's a very long season. Over time, a malaise set it, a fog settling over an offense that had been reconstructed to feature what Scioscia calls "batter's box offense" in the absence of Chone Figgins' leadoff electricity.
At the heart of that restructuring was the sweet-swinging, switch-hitting Morales, whose dominant second half in 2009 lifted him into the upper echelon of players. From question mark to exclamation mark, he finished fifth in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting and was poised for even bigger things at age 27.
"Kendry was on his way," Bobby Abreu said. "No doubt about it."
Scioscia is careful not to deliver words and thoughts that can be interpreted as excuses. He takes great pains to avoid planting negative seeds.
He'll state the obvious: "A guy like Kendry has a spillover effect on a positive side in keeping guys in a comfort zone." And then, in the next breath, he'll say, "But the depth of our problem has not been that Kendry is not in the lineup. You might see some subtle issues with a guy like Kendry out, but we should be able to absorb things. And for a while, we did."
Abreu, the Angels' quiet guru and 14-year veteran, doesn't mince words.
"We miss Kendry in every way," Abreu said. "Last year, his first full year, he proved to everybody what he can do. He's very important to our lineup with his power in the middle. He's one of the best hitters in the game.
"He plays hard every day. He's a good teammate, a team player. He's got good hands and a strong arm, and he has become a very good first baseman. And he's a good guy, popular with everybody. He's a fun guy. Everybody likes Kendry."
Offense, defense, chemistry. Even the pitching staff felt it emotionally, its margin of error narrowing to a razor's edge. That's a lot of suffering over a 162-game season when an impact guy goes down after playing less than one-third of the schedule.
Just as he had in 2009, Morales was shaking off a slow start and coming alive offensively when he went down after his slam beat the Mariners in 10 innings. He was hitting .290 with 11 homers, 39 RBIs in 51 games. His defense, adept and aggressive, was superb.
And he kept the clubhouse loose with his quirky sense of humor.
The Angels have used nine first basemen in Morales' absence. In this case, nine hasn't come close to adding up to one.
"He was turning into an all-around player," said Kendrick, who has spent some time at first. "You saw what he did at the plate. His defense was coming. When we played together [in 2005] at [Class A] Rancho [Cucamonga], he played right field, third base, some first. He's come a long way defensively with hard work.
"A lot of times, he's the guy in our lineup you have to be worried about. That takes some pressure off, and guys are pitched differently. Kendry's a hitter who can hurt you in so many ways. He has a presence at the plate that changes the way they approach you as a team."
The Angels' clubhouse is a quieter place without Morales' loose and easy manner, his ability to generate laughter as well as the awe his bat evokes.
"We've always been comfortable with him, because a lot of us played with him coming up," Kendrick said. "I played with Kendry in Double-A, Triple-A. He's always been the same guy, joking around, having a good time.
"He's definitely a good chemistry guy."
There were three players the Angels couldn't afford to lose -- Jered Weaver, Torii Hunter and Morales.
Without Special K, this bunch lost its snap, crackle and pop.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.