Wilson calls quite a strong game
Angels' young catcher seems to have a knack at bringing out the best in his pitchers
"Sure," Wilson said. "You mind if I sit down?"
With that, he plopped exhaustedly into a clubhouse chair. While wearily pulling off his sweat-soaked red socks, he tried to explain how he has managed to shepherd Angels pitchers so well at such an early stage in his major league career. The Angels are 11-1 in games Wilson has started behind the plate.
The most recent example came Saturday night, when Joe Saunders showed vintage form in shutting down the Rockies on a season-high eight strikeouts. The Angels are as catcher-driven as any organization in baseball. Their manager, Mike Scioscia, made a nice career out of blocking balls and the plate, and they now appear to have two of the more adept defensive catchers in the American League in Wilson and Jeff Mathis. If a 12-game sample size sounds a bit small, it is. But Wilson's impact certainly has been felt by Angels pitchers already.
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"It's just not coincidence with Bobby," Scioscia said. "He's a terrific defensive catcher."
After an 0-for-3 night at the plate (the Angels had only four hits), Wilson is batting .175 in 40 scattered at-bats this season. But you can throw that out the window; he's not on this roster because of his bat. Wilson has helped guide Angels pitchers to some of their finest performances this season, helping them think their way through a game.
It takes strategy and adjustments to succeed at this level. Just as he had done with Jered Weaver last weekend in Chicago, Wilson saved a pitch for the second time through the lineup. By the third inning, he began calling for Saunders' changeup. That gave Rockies hitters an additional worry to go with Saunders' sharp breaking ball and a fastball that was hitting its spots.
More than his pitch calling or ability to throw out runners or block balls in the dirt, Wilson tries to establish trust in the pitchers he catches. He does it by showing them he cares as much as they do.
"I consider myself an intense catcher," Wilson said. "I hate losing, first off. I just try staying intense with the guys and showing them that I really care. That's what [Mike Napoli] and Jeff do, too. They're not just putting down fingers. They actually care."
The Angels have a little more power this season, but they're still going to succeed or fail over the long haul based on their pitching. Saturday was a good night for Saunders' confidence. He had been knocked around in his two previous starts (0-2, 11.88 ERA) after a long process of righting himself following a rocky first five weeks. Saunders (6-8) also had this working against him when the night began: a 1-6 record and 6.75 ERA at home.
"Just getting back on a consistent streak would be nice," Saunders said. "This is something good to build off. Everyone knows I haven't been pitching well at home this year, except for one good start. I know I can pitch well at this stadium and I'm going to have to. Hopefully, I'm going to be here for a while."
Typically, hitters assume they'll be given the take sign with a 3-and-0 count. With the bases loaded in the first inning and one out, Hideki Matsui instead got a green light.
Scioscia said he had little hesitation. Matsui is one of the most professional hitters in the American League. He knew what to do. He got a sinker up in the strike zone and drove it over the center-field fence for a grand slam and the only runs the Angels would muster.
Aaron Cook dominated them after that.
"I was trying to avoid any pitches that were going to turn into a ground ball," Matsui said through an interpreter. "I wasn't necessarily focused on the result, just looking for a pitch to drive to the outfield."
It can be a fine line between a save and a blown save.
Brian Fuentes walked it Saturday night after he walked Melvin Mora with one out. Miguel Olivo lined a ball toward the right-center-field gap, a ball that might have driven in a run and put another runner in scoring position.
But Howie Kendrick jumped and caught the ball, throwing to first for the double play that ended the game.
"At first, when he jumped, I thought it was over his head," Scioscia said. "When the ball didn't show up behind him, I figured it was in his glove. That was a great leap."
That made for a clean night for Angels relievers one night after they gave up two runs to cost Weaver a win. Fernando Rodney, who gave up the tying run Friday, pitched a scoreless eighth to set up Fuentes.
Fuentes pitched seven seasons for the Rockies.
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The Angels' clubhouse doesn't have many serious soccer fans, but it does have Mathis, who played the game in his youth and has followed the World Cup closely.
He told MLB.com's Lyle Spencer that the house he shares with Napoli got pretty loud Saturday morning while the U.S. was losing a close match to Ghana in the round of 16.
"Even Nap got into it," Mathis said. "We were cheering and screaming, thinking we had a shot at it."
Quote of the day
"I told him in the shower he got about three inches off the ground." -- Saunders on Kendrick's leap
The Angels play their final interleague game of 2010 on Sunday.
Aside from Weaver, Ervin Santana (7-5, 3.91 ERA) has been the Angels' most consistent starter. Santana, who will make his second career appearance versus the Rockies on Sunday, has won six of his past eight starts. His weakness has been home runs. Santana has given up 14 long balls, tying him for third in the American League.
The Angels will face rookie right-hander Jhoulys Chacin (4-6, 3.56), who pitched 6 2/3 scoreless innings in his past start versus the Boston Red Sox. Chacin, a native of Venezuela, is an extreme ground-ball pitcher who throws a low-90s fastball and a good changeup.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.