12/26/09 10:00 AM EST
Halos rise out of tragedy to success in '09
Teamwork, dominating arms led Angels in overcoming loss
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
The season was not yet a week old when Nick Adenhart, a 22-year-old pitcher of immense promise, was killed in an auto wreck caused by an alleged drunk driver along with two companions, Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson. There was one survivor, and Jon Wilhite would provide inspiration with his miraculous recovery, tossing out the ceremonial first pitch before games in Oakland and Anaheim.
It took them two full months to find their bearings, but once they did, the Angels went to work with an offense unmatched in franchise history in support of a pitching staff that was patched together until the final month, when the arrival of lefty Scott Kazmir in a deal with Tampa Bay created what manager Mike Scioscia would call his "best and deepest rotation in my 10 years here."
Early-season injuries to starters John Lackey and Ervin Santana -- neither would debut until mid-May -- and injuries to setup men Scot Shields and Jose Arredondo places a severe strain on the entire pitching staff. Reinforcements arrived regularly to plug holes, with journeyman Matt Palmer especially vital with his work, both as a starter and reliever, over the course of the season.
After a drubbing by the Rays in Florida on June 11 left them at 29-29 and 4 ½ games off the pace, Scioscia took the club to task, promising changes if the club didn't turn it around.
Responding to a rare display of raw emotion from their leader, the Angels took heart -- and took flight. A month later, they were in first place in the American League West to stay, en route to a third consecutive division title and fifth in six years.
The season's high point would arrive in Boston when the Angels completed a three-game ALDS sweep of the Red Sox with a four-run rally with two out in the ninth inning of Game 3 at Fenway Park.
Disappointment was lurking at Yankee Stadium, where the Angels would fall in Game 6 to the eventual World Series champion Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
Given how the season had begun, falling two wins shy of a World Series with 97 regular-season victories and five in the postseason represented a remarkable accomplishment by the Angels and Scioscia, who was rewarded with his second AL Manager of the Year award.
Slugging first baseman Kendry Morales finished fifth in the AL MVP voting, with third baseman Chone Figgins and right fielder Bobby Abreu also drawing MVP support. Despite missing a month with a groin injury that would lead to postseason surgery for a sports hernia, center fielder Torii Hunter won his ninth consecutive Gold Glove and first Silver Slugger Award.
A month-by-month rundown of the season's main developments:
The city of Anaheim dropped its legal challenge to the Angels' name when the City Council voted unanimously to discontinue efforts to restore the Anaheim Angels. The city had argued that team owner Arte Moreno violated the city-owned stadium lease agreement when he changed the name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005. A California appeals court ruled against the city late in 2008, and an Orange County Superior court jury sided with the team in 2006.
When Jon Garland signed with Arizona as a free agent, the fifth spot in the rotation was thrown open with Dustin Moseley, Shane Loux and Adenhart among those competing for the role. As it turned out, all three would be in the rotation when the season opened with Lackey and Santana both experiencing arm ailments that would sideline them for about six weeks.
In honor of Preston Gomez, who passed away on Jan. 13 after spending his final 28 years in the Angels organization, it was announced that Scioscia, the coaching staff and the players would wear black "PRESTON" patches on their sleeves for all home and road games. Gomez, 85, died following complications from injuries sustained last March when he was struck by a truck while walking to his car at a service station. He was on his way home to Southern California from the Angels' Spring Training site.
Santana, 26, agreed on to a four-year contract extension through 2012. The club holds an option for a fifth year.
The early reports on starter Kelvim Escobar, coming back from labrum surgery, and outfielder Gary Matthews Jr., rebounding from knee surgery, were extremely optimistic. Escobar was hoping to reclaim a spot in the rotation by midseason, but his return would last only one start, in Detroit in early June, before he was forced to shut it down for the season. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero (knee surgery) and catcher Mike Napoli (shoulder surgery) also expressed confidence that they'd be ready to go by the start of the season, gradually working into game condition.
Two important additions -- Abreu and closer Brian Fuentes -- began settling into their new environment. Abreu's popularity in the clubhouse quickly spread, and he would become a huge presence for younger teammates as the season evolved. Fuentes wrestled with some early aches and pains that forced him to withdraw from Team USA's World Baseball Classic roster.
Santana began experiencing elbow pain that would result in a collateral ligament sprain. An All-Star in '08 for the first time, Santana would not make his first start until May 14.
With the season a week away, Lackey was found to have a strain and inflammation in his right forearm, but it was unrelated to a right triceps strain, which cost him the first six weeks of the '08 season. Lackey was administered a cortisone shot and given anti-inflammatory medication. He would not make his '09 debut until May 16.
Adenhart's final Cactus League start had him positioned to open the season in the rotation. With superior command and stuff, the gifted right-hander issued just four walks in 18 spring innings, going 6 2/3 innings and yielding two runs in his final outing against the Cubs. He did not give up a home run all spring.
With Lackey and Santana on the DL, Joe Saunders -- a 2008 AL All-Star -- earned the Opening Day start and responded with 6 2/3 shutout innings in a 3-0 win over the Athletics at Angel Stadium.
Hours after pitching six scoreless innings against the A's in his fourth Major League start, Adenhart was killed in a hit-and-run crash that occurred at about 12:30 a.m. PT on April 9 in nearby Fullerton, Calif.
"After making phone calls to a lot of players and coaches, disbelief was prevalent," general manager Tony Reagins said. "We are all in shock."
Hunter, the clubhouse leader, spoke for teammates when he said, "He was so excited to show the organization and the fans that he belongs in the Major Leagues. And then now, it's all over." The game scheduled against the A's that night was postponed.
Remembering Adenhart with a pregame ceremony and unveiling No. 34 uniform patches they would wear in his honor, the Angels returned to the field on Friday, April 10, with a stirring 6-3 triumph over the Red Sox in front of Adenhart's parents. Slowed during the spring by shoulder and back issues, Jered Weaver gave up one unearned run in 6 2/3 innings, setting in motion what would be a superb season dedicated to his good friend, Adenhart.
The opening homestand ended with a brouhaha involving the Red Sox, whose starter, Josh Beckett, threw a ball in the direction of Abreu's head after time was called. Both dugouts and bullpens emptied, but Beckett was allowed to remain in the game, which eventually was claimed by the Angels. Beckett was later suspended for six games, reduced to five, while Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher drew a one-game suspension.
Vladiimir Guerrero, discovering he'd torn a chest muscle making a throw in an exhibition game at Dodger Stadium, was placed on the disabled list on April 18. Reduced to DH duty, Guerrero would play only 100 games.
The Angels were 9-12 and 3 ½ games out of first in the AL West when a turbulent and troubling month finally ended with a loss in New York to the Yankees.
Unheralded Matt Palmer, filling a void in the rotation, outdueled CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium, helping Weaver and Saunders solidify the rotation.
Saunders delivered his first big league shutout on May 9, outdueling Royals ace Zack Greinke, 1-0, while holding Kansas City to five hits and one walk at Angel Stadium.
Lackey was tossed out of his season debut in Texas after throwing two pitches that forced leadoff man Ian Kinsler to duck. Lackey would start two days later and pick up a win in Seattle. The next day, Palmer -- en route to a 6-0 start, best-ever by a 30-year-old Major League rookie -- outdueled another ace, the Mariners' Felix Hernandez.
After a 4-5 trip through Toronto, Detroit and Tampa Bay left the club at .500 and Scioscia in a lather, the Angels turned on the juice and launched a seven-game winning streak in Interleague Play. Included in the run were Weaver's first career complete-game shutout against the Padres at home and Sean O'Sulllivan's triumph in his Major League debut in San Francisco.
On June 13 at Angel Stadium, Hunter hit three home runs in a game for the first time in his caeer in a 9-1 drubbing of the Padres. It hadn't been done by an Angels player since Garret Anderson in 2003.
On June 20, again at Angel Stadium, Weaver and older brother, Jeff, of the Dodgers faced off, becoming the eighth pair of brothers to duel in a Major League game. Jeff and the Dodgers prevailed, 6-4, ending the seven-game Angels winning streak.
With Figgins (hitting .333 for the second straight month) and Abreu triggering the offense and Morales beginning to flex his muscles, the Angels hit high gear with another winning streak, spanning six games, seizing the division lead for the first time with a win at Arizona on June 27. With Fuentes gaining the MLB lead in saves, they finished the month with a 1 ½-game lead over the tenacious Rangers, who would remain in the hunt almost all the way.
A three-game sweep of the Yankees at home right before the All-Star break had the Angels in first place for keeps. Fuentes and Figgins would be selected to represent the Angels in the All-Star Game. Hunter was chosen but an ailment in his right groin area prevented him from playing.
With shortstop Erick Aybar, Abreu, Juan Rivera and Morales leading the charge along with the consistent Figgins, the Angels' offense was a destructive force throughout the month. It was so formidable, not even the losses of Hunter and Guerrero (right calf strain) -- both placed on the DL on July 10 -- could slow the machinery.
Aybar, electric defensively, erupted with a .414 month. Batting .380 and driving in 28 runs in 26 games, Abreu was named AL Player of the Month. He would reach 100 RBIs (103) for the seventh consecutive season, joining Albert Pujols as the only other player to do that. Morales would start rolling, hitting .320 for the month with seven homers and 20 RBIs. Rivera, finally healthy and playing regularly, hit .350 for the month en route to a career year.
With a 19-7 month, the Angels scored 185 runs and batted .316 as a team. Lackey found his form with a 5-1 month and 2.70 ERA in six starts, while young right-handers Kevin Jepsen and Jason Bulger helped steer Fuentes toward an MLB-high 48 saves with quality set-up work.
Morales opened the month with a bang, hitting a pair of three-run homers with a career-high six RBIs in a 13-4 rout of the Twins at home on Aug. 2. Hitting .385 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs, Morales would give the club back-to-back players of the month, claiming the award for a rousing August.
Uncharacteristically quiet most of the season because of his various ailments, Guerrero came alive with a big month. He went deep twice at home on Aug. 20 against the Rays, reaching 400 for his remarkable career. He became one of six players in history with at least 400 homers and a .320 or higher career average, joining Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams. The big bopper also homered twice in Baltimore on Aug. 17 and twice on Aug. 31 in Seattle.
Morales enjoyed a 5-for-5 game with two homers and six RBIs at home on Aug. 28 against the A's, while Lackey notched his 100th career win on Aug. 30 against the A's at home. Only Chuck Finley, Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana and Mike Witt had reached 100 wins in an Angels uniform before Lackey joined the club.
The month ended on a high note as well for Saunders. Hampered all year by shoulder issues, the lefty finally shut it down for 19 days and came back with a flourish, Beating the Tigers and Mariners to close August, Saunders would go on to claim his final seven decisions in eight outings. A 17-12 month left the Angels leading the West by six games heading down the stretch.
Howard Kendrick, demoted to Triple-A Salt Lake during an early-season slump, came on like gangbusters in the second half and finished with a bang, batting .339 in the final month. Aybar (.337) and steady Maicer Izturis (.307) continued their strong play offensively as well as defensively in the middle infield.
Acquired on Aug. 28 from the Rays for three prospects -- Sean Rodriguez, Alex Torres and Matt Sweeney -- Kazmir was dazzling in his Angels debut on Sept. 2 in Seattle. Loading the bases with none out in the first, the lefty proceeded to strike out the side. With the offense finally slowing down, Kazmir was only 2-2 in his six starts for the Angels but put together a superb 1.73 ERA. He went at least six innings in five of his starts, showing flashes of brilliance.
On Sept. 28, the Angels clinched their third consecutive division title with an 11-0 dismissal of the second-place Rangers at home behind Santana's fourth career shutout. An emotional postgame celebration featured the entire team heading out to touch the Adenhart visual memorial on the center field wall, which had been unveiled the day after his death.
Winning seven of their final eight games, the Angels won the division by a deceiving 10 games. Texas had pushed them all season before faltering at the finish.
Riding that momentum into the ALDS against perennial nemesis Boston, the Angels responded to the challenge. Lackey and Weaver were brilliant in shutting down the Red Sox in the first two games at home, and the final touches were provided at Fenway Park in Game 3 when the club rallied dramatically with four ninth-inning runs, all with two out, against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon. Abreu's RBI double and Guerrero's game-deciding single were the decisive blows.
The Yankees had earned home-field advantage for the ALCS, and it proved to be the difference. The Bronx Bombers won all three at home, including a pivotal Game 2 in 12 innings. The Angels showed their mettle by returning home to take two of three after dropping the first two, but the Yankees were on a mission, and they prevailed in Game 6 at home. Catcher Jeff Mathis was the Angels' surprise hitting star of the series with five doubles, including a walk-off two-bagger that decided Game 3 in the 11th inning. Mathis also ignited a decisive three-run seventh inning in Game 5 with a single.
The Angels signed outfielder Abreu to a two-year deal with a club option for 2012. Abreu, 35, batted .293 with 103 RBIs and 30 steals in his first season with the Angels. General manager Tony Reagins was rewarded by club owner Arte Moreno with a long-term contract extension. Six Angels veterans -- Figgins, Guerrero, Lackey, Darren Oliver, Robb Quinlan and Kelvim Escobar - filed for free agency.
Dennis Kuhl, who has served as club president since 2003, has been promoted to chairman, with John Carpino elevated to the president post.
Scioscia was named AL Manager of the Year by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. He also won the award in 2002.
Hunter underwent successful surgery at Baylor University Hospital to repair a sports hernia on his right side and is expected to be ready for Spring Training.
Longtime television voices Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler were dismissed.
Figgins was signed by the Mariners, while Lackey agreed to a free-agent deal with the Red Sox. This leaves Scot Shields, coming off knee surgery, as the only player left from the 2002 World Series championship team.
The Angels reached an agreement with designated hitter Hideki Matsui, slugging star of the postseason for the Yankees, on a one-year, $6.5 million deal.
Reliever Jose Arredondo will have Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery on his right elbow in January and will miss the entire 2010 season. He was not offered a contract for 2010, along with pitcher Dustin Moseley and third baseman Matt Brown.
Oliver, a stalwart in the Angels' bullpen for three years, signed a free-agent deal with the Rangers.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.