Last night’s Los Angeles Angels-New York Yankees match-up seemed like so much ho-hum for N.L fans: a predictable struggle between the Titans of Gotham and an empire-in-the-making. These kinds of things hold little interest for the small ball, double-switch afficianadoes of D.C., Miami, Milwaukee, or Colorado who tend to look down on teams that have non-position players in uniform that are “designated.”
But L.A.’s walk-off, 9-8 bottom-of-the-ninth victory portended more of the same as this summer passes, and perhaps a sign of what is to come for both teams in September and October. They could not be more different. The Bombers are a team built on power and savvy age (even their website looks old), with a shaky staff, while the Belinskys are constructed around the best player in the game and a bevy of solid starters.
That sounds right, but you’d never know it from last night’s game. Solid starter Jered Weaver seemed anything but solid, as the Yankees touched him up for three runs in the top of the first. Then, even more ignobly, Weaver twisted, tore or tweaked something as he delivered a slider. He was suddenly done for the night, making way for a gaggle of relievers who looked just so-so.
The stage was set for the Yankees to cruise to victory. But this is not the Yankees of old, or even of two years ago. Empire starter Phil Hughes brought L.A. back into the game with a very average performance — seven runs on eleven hits in just 5.1 innings of work. Here’s the shocker: when he walked off the mound, the Yankee fans in the stands (a surprising number, in Angel crazy L.A.) gave him a standing ovation.
That’s the way it is in Yankee-land it seems: poor performances are built into the ubiquitous pinstripe “legend,” where every pitcher is a potential Whitey Ford, every hitter is compared with Mantle, and every mediocre outing is transmuted into “gutty.” ESPN headlined this performance — “Hughes Doesn’t Look Suited To Start” — to which we would add: or relieve.
L.A. eventually won the back-and-forth affair with a triumphant home run (a “trumbomb”) from Mark Trumbo, an underrated an often-ignored force at the plate in his sophomore year. You’d have to be out of your mind to think that this guy won’t be a superstar: in 41 games this year he has eight home runs and 22 RBIs. Last night’s shot snuck just inside the left field foul pole, but his power’s not in question.
Oh, and then there’s that Angels’ rookie, Mike Trout. Touted by some scouts as even better than Bryce Harper, the rookie is setting L.A. on fire: his .302 average is second only to Trumbo’s, and he’s a whiz in the outfield — which is (we wince in saying this) more than we can say for Bryce. And while he’s not as whip-fast as Harper, Trout is sneaky quick, with that all-out college baseball style shown by his Nationals’ counterpart.
Now that Mike Scioscia & Co. have decided that Trout is better off not playing third (a no-brainer, really), the Angels’ outfield of Trout, Trumbo and fleet-of-foot Peter Bourjos (lusted after by the Nationals, despite his pretty average start this year) is as good as any in the majors.
Trout was a first round pick by the Angels in 2009, which was 25th overall. You have to wonder what teams were thinking. A bevy of scouts who watched him play at Millville in New Jersey salivated over his power and athletic skills. And while he struggled when he first came to the majors last year (he hit .220 for the Belinskys in 123 at bats), his current average will, in the year’s ahead, look standard — and about right. “If he’s not the best player in the game by the end of this season, he will be by the end of the next,” a scout recently told Buster Olney.
That conviction is held by a lot of L.A fans, who identify Trout’s emergence as one of the reasons why the Angels have won seven in a row. “It’s a tall order for most players to say, ‘Hey, come up here at age 20, be connected with the best hitter in the game for the past 11 years and get on base and make things happen,’” Angels’ manager Scioscia said last week. “He’s certainly meeting the challenge and doing it in a big way.”
Is Trout better than Harper? The two seem evenly matched: power and speed and desire — and youth. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter who is better, as much as it does that baseball has two rookies who very well could (barring the unforeseen) dominate the game in the decade to come.
Of course there are the detractors, particularly in Chicago — where Cubs fans say that counting only two great rookies fails to take notice of a phenom who could well be the long awaited North Side Messiah. Just wait, they say, until you see Anthony Rizzo.