Wrigley rout highlights infield worries
CHICAGO -- Few things in baseball are more deceptive than a small sample size. Somehow, the Los Angeles Angels managed to play solid infield defense and pile up wins after losing three of their slickest fielders to injuries. They went 15-5 after losing starting first baseman Kendry Morales. They went 3-1 after acrobatic shortstop Erick Aybar went down.
Even without backup Maicer Izturis -- whom manager Mike Scioscia thinks has "Gold Glove potential" at three positions -- the Angels somehow managed to hold it together.
And then it all came crashing down Sunday in an ugly 12-1 loss at Wrigley Field. The Angels made only one error, Brandon Wood flubbing a routine play at shortstop, but the left side of the infield had all the stopping power of sponge cake and all the range of a tetherball.
Thus far, the Angels have avoided disaster with an ad hoc infield of Kevin Frandsen at third, Wood at shortstop and catcher Mike Napoli at first. But the potential for disaster looms under this team like the edge of a tectonic plate. Worries about the defense could become a source of stress for Angels pitchers, particularly those who rely on groundouts.
Joe Saunders (5-8) is one of the Angels' ground-ball pitchers and, while he didn't exactly pitch well Sunday, he admitted to a little frustration with all the seeing-eye hits and missed plays. All told, five of the Chicago Cubs' 18 hits glanced off fielders' gloves. The Cubs scored three unearned runs and it could have been worse. Wood's high throw to third -- when he could have had an easy out at first -- cost Saunders an extra earned run in the second.
"They just seemed to find a constant hole on that left side of the infield," Saunders said. "They were perfectly placed ground balls and my defense wasn't quite there for me today, but that's going to happen. Kevin's played great over there. He had a tough day over there. Brandon had a tough day. Just a tough day for the left side of the infield."
The Angels continue to pile pressure on Wood's shoulders. He had enough to worry about trying to get his batting average up to .200. Now, he has to replace one of the game's most athletic shortstops and return to a position he hasn't played much in a year. Aybar remains on the active roster, but the Angels might place him on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday. He hyperextended his left knee on June 14 and hasn't played since. Aybar said Sunday he'd rather return when he knows he can play at nearly full strength.
There's only so much Wood can do. He's 6-foot-3 and nowhere near as athletic as Aybar. He said he needs to work on his footwork at shortstop, but it's going to be on-the-job training. He's easily the Angels' best option at the position right now. He's practically the only option. Losing Izturis might have been more painful than losing Aybar since he's capable of playing shortstop and third at an elite level.
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"Aybar's one of the best shortstops in the game. It's not like I'm going to come in and fill those shoes. I can only do what I'm capable of," Wood said. "The Web Gems he makes, throwing off his backside, those are things I might not be capable of doing, but making the routine play is something I can do. Today, the ball just ate me up a little bit."
Frandsen played third base in college, but college is college. His most natural position at this level is second base and, as one scout said, the longer you leave him out there, the more likely he is to be exposed.
Scioscia is hoping this infield can hold the line until either Aybar or Izturis returns, but that could be a couple of weeks away. The only other option is for Angels pitchers to pitch away from contact, as Jered Weaver did Saturday, but that doesn't seem like a viable long-term fix. The Angels are in a tenuous place in their season. They've generally played well, but they're losing ground. The Texas Rangers won their eighth straight game Sunday and now lead the Angels by 3½ games.
"I think defensively we're going to be OK," Scioscia said.
So far, the evidence is in Scioscia's favor, but the trend is against it.
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The Angels' closer has a 6.23 ERA. Brian Fuentes, who hadn't pitched in a week, had to be rescued by rookie Trevor Bell in his one inning of mop-up work when he allowed three runs on two ringing doubles, a walk and a single. It's becoming less and less clear whether Fuentes will handle save situations. Fernando Rodney saved Friday's game, in part because Fuentes didn't have time to get warm quickly enough and in part because of matchups.
Asked if Fuentes remains his closer, Scioscia said, "Yeah."
By the numbers
After striking out 11 Cubs to take over the major league strikeout lead Saturday, Jered Weaver said he feels like he's getting ahead of hitters more frequently than ever.
He's not kidding. According to Puneet Nanda of ESPN Stats & Information, Weaver threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 24 batters he faced Saturday and none of them put the ball in play. That means Weaver was ahead 0-and-1 to 71 percent of the batters he faced. Only four Cubs even swung at the first pitch.
Weaver got to two strikes on 20 batters and got 19 of them out. The other one reached on a strikeout and wild pitch.
Weaver's command also stands out. He threw 76.2 percent of his off-speed stuff -- curveballs, sliders and changeups -- for strikes.
Scene and heard
It was another rough day for the umpires, who appeared to get two calls wrong on one play. Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro was trying to start a double play in the sixth inning when his throw sailed high to Ryan Theriot. Ed Hickox ruled the runner out at second, though replays indicated Theriot's foot was off the bag. The relay throw beat Kevin Frandsen to first and Derrek Lee appeared to keep his foot on the bag, but Gary Cederstrom ruled Frandsen safe. You could have had both managers arguing at once, but Scioscia stayed in the dugout and Lou Piniella, whose team led 9-1 at the time, didn't stay on the field long.
Quote of the day
"I think Erick's the kind of player you're going to appreciate more when he's not in there." -- Scioscia on Aybar.
The Angels have a day off Monday before playing a three-game series at Angel Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Angels swept the Dodgers last week at Dodger Stadium and hold the all-time edge in the rivalry 41-30.Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.