Angels break tension with victory
A pregame meeting, led by veteran Hunter, helps L.A. refocus on trying to close strong
BOSTON -- At the very least, it eased the weight off everyone's chests long enough to let them breath, even to laugh.
When the Boston Red Sox brought in 18-year veteran Tim Wakefield, who throws virtually nothing but knuckleballs, in the eighth inning, somebody on the Los Angeles Angels' bench asked, "What does he have?"
It might not be the kind of line you build a stand-up routine around, but it beat the noxious dugout atmosphere of the previous few nights. The Angels got a little break from the grim tension of busted expectations with Thursday night's 7-2 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Easing that pressure and pushing aside a few psychological road blocks seemed to be the point of Thursday's pregame meeting, called by Torii Hunter and prompted by insomnia.
"I could not sleep at night the way we were playing," Hunter said. "We were down. Every night the last five games, it was like dead, no energy. Guys would strike out, sit on the bench. It was just sad. I think it was time to call a meeting.
"Actually, it was pretty intense. We got some things cleaned up, just go out there and play like it's your last. I asked, all the players asked, the organization asked and the fans asked: Just give it your all, play like it's your last and that's what we plan on doing for the next 40-odd games."
To the believers still out there (there are some, right?), it looks like a reward for their faith. At least some members of this team still believe the 2010 season has meaning. Somebody thinks it's worth fighting for, or at least worth talking about.
To the cynics, it might look like an empty gesture. Sure, hold the players-only team meeting on a night you're facing Josh Beckett, a pitcher struggling to rediscover himself.
Then again, maybe they weren't doing it for the benefit of anyone but themselves.
"I think it's good when players talk things out," manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think it's important and I think they took the field with a sense of purpose, like we talk about. We call it a lot of different things, taking the field with confidence, a sense of purpose. What it really is is making the field yours."
At 4:45 p.m. at Fenway Park, Scioscia and his coaches stepped outside, yielding the clubhouse floor to Hunter, a man Bobby Abreu called "the captain." An attendant was told to keep the media outside, so he wedged a metal folding chair under the door knob.
It lasted for nearly 30 minutes and the topic was the future. At times, Hunter said, the players "got into it," airing some of their in-house grievances. After all, the Angels really have only two choices. They can keep fumbling their way toward meaninglessness or they can at least expose a glimmer of hope with a solid finish to this season.
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Maybe Thursday's win was a first step toward snatching back their swagger, or maybe it was just another false move. At least it was different. Ervin Santana (13-8) cooled off the Red Sox, knocking them closer to elimination in their brutal division and avoiding the embarrassment of an 0-10 season against Boston, not their favorite team.
It would be unfair to say that Thursday's meeting was about fighting back into the pennant race, even if the win did get them to within seven games of the scuffling Texas Rangers, losers of eight of their past 10. And even if the previous players-only meeting -- back in early May -- might have helped set the stage for the Angels' best month this year, June.
Talk of a pennant race is premature. A team has to prove it can stay above .500 for a few weeks to call itself a contender. But there are other things worth playing for, including your fans and your pride. Hunter and Abreu and a few of the other veterans have been doing it long enough, have made enough money that winning should be their prime motivation.
According to Santana, it was the guys "with more time" who did the talking. Hunter pointed out that asking Scioscia to leave might have helped, too.
"Some of these guys are scared of the manager," Hunter said. "We could speak freely."
As usual with such get-togethers, nobody really wanted to give too many details. It wasn't about patching up chasms between team cliques, Abreu said. If anything, some people consider this team too laid back, so clubhouse dissension doesn't seem to be a worry.
"We all stay together," Abreu said. "This is a perfect group. We have a family here, we all stay together, that's one of the best things we have."
But going to lunch together is not enough to guarantee winning baseball. In fact, it might be irrelevant to the enterprise.
"Our clubhouse chemistry is terrific, but it goes to the point we talked about before: What's more important, clubhouse chemistry or on-field chemistry?" Scioscia said. "I think it's obvious on-field chemistry is something we've been searching for."
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Not all the potions worked together perfectly. The Angels made a couple of gaffes in the field and their bats didn't exactly fill the night with loud sounds. Hideki Matsui lifted a three-run home run into the Red Sox bullpen, but the rest of the Angels' two rallies were largely stealth jobs. They scored three runs in the seventh without getting a ball out of the infield.
Santana was stout, managing to pitch into the eighth inning while striking out only one batter and, at least for one evening, the Angels had a little fun.
Quote of the day
"I can do that." -- Matsui, taking Hunter's challenge to address the team in English, without his interpreter, in the next meeting.
The Angels' road doesn't get easier. They travel to Minnesota this weekend for their first look at Target Field and a series against the hottest team in baseball. The Minnesota Twins are 7-0-1 in their past eight series.
The teams haven't met since the first series of the year, when the Angels took the first game before losing three straight at home.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.