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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Inside-The-Park Job: Angels 4, Royals 1

Just too busy entertaining a friend Thursday night to write about Jered Weaver's one-run complete game victory over the Blue Jays, the first CG of his career, and approaching a year after he embarrassingly lost 1-0 to the Dodgers despite allowing no earned runs. Yesterday's was probably one of his top three or so games in the majors to date, if not his acme; the bullpen needs to keep its nose out of as many games as possible considering the stink it's posted so far, in the main. I've been unhesitatingly critical of him in the past for letting things get to him too easily, but praise — and enthusiastic praise at that — is due for efforts like that. Bravo, Jered, and here's to many more like it. (But not too many more, lest your shoulder get blown out.)

So, once more, the Angels turned to Matt Palmer, who, along with Shane Loux, has been bopped by the Pitching Fairy and suddenly turned from nothing into something. At any moment either could fall back into the AAA dust whence they came, especially so with Palmer; 30-year-old rookies being what they are, I expect him to exit the game with the bags loaded four outs into a start, and then lather, rinse, repeat until DFA'd or optioned.

And yet, no. Palmer, when he could find the plate today — and he admittedly had a hard time with it — managed an obscene number of strikeouts, five in all, almost one for every frame he appeared in. That's maybe not a surprise; he started his career in the Giants system as a closer, won a 2003 minor league All-Star nod, fell off the horse after injury, and last year switched to starting, where he struck out nearly a batter an inning for AAA Fresno. Frustrated with the Giants, he drifted into the Angels organization after becoming a minor league free agent. His 2009 started horribly:

For Palmer, the first big change came in Triple-A Salt Lake, where he'd been sent, having signed a Minor League Angels contract, to get ready for an emergency in Anaheim with a pitching staff in disrepair.

His Salt Lake team was in a collective daze, absorbing the aftershocks of the death of their former teammate Nick Adenhart a few days earlier, when Palmer made his first start -- and got hit hard.

"That was horrible, just horrible," Palmer said. "With what had happened, I don't think anybody was in their right mind. I was all over the place."

Pitching coach Erik Bennett pulled Palmer aside in a bullpen session and recommended an adjustment in his mechanics. Voila!

"My second pitch in the bullpen, it felt right," Palmer said. "Basically, it was about using my legs to push toward the target, not my upper body.

"When I got to Anaheim, I made another adjustment with Butch [pitching coach Mike Butcher] focusing on driving more directly toward the plate. That's made a big difference, too."

Whatever it is, he's been a shot in the arm for a team that's desperately needed one in the wake of both Adenhart's death and the steady stream of injuries besetting the team. While he wasn't exactly the picture of control — he also walked three — he had a one-hitter going into the sixth, and it feels like Christmas every day he's on the mound and doing this well. As the article above says, the Halos will have some decisions to make when the pitching staff on the DL starts returning, and those are the good kind.

Of course, after rambling on and on about Palmer, I can't miss the real highlight of the game, Howie Kendrick's inside-the-parker. After the Angels scratched out a run on a couple of singles on a two-out rally in the third, the Halos took a shaky 1-0 lead into the sixth. Juan Rivera set the table by hammering a one-out double, bringing Kendrick to the plate.

Howie's at-bat started oddly: he showed bunt, and fouled off the first pitch. It was almost as though he had no confidence in his ability to get the job done, because he's been pushed down in the lineup, and Royals starter Gil Meche had struck him out in the second on a 1-2 count. There has been a sense of anxiousness with his at-bats this year, and so when he welted one down the right field line, it looked at first as though it had a chance. Then, Jose Guillen appeared to run it down — only, not, and the ball skipped off his glove as he slowed, misjudging the ball by that much. Compounding matters, he had to change course by about 110 degrees — slightly behind him, so he was slow to get to the ball.

Subsequent video showed that even Kendrick clearly expected Guillen to catch it, as he slowed down a bit once he approached first base, but then when he missed it, Howie poured it on. Rounding second, he saw Dino Ebel in full windmill mode, and then the fireworks from the rocks, even though it took a couple heartbeats for the official scorer to determine what everyone else in the park already knew. Everyone, that is, except Gil Meche: "If you want to call it an inside-the-parker, you go ahead, but I'd rather not even comment on that one." Well, as you like, Gil. Who knows, maybe the official scorer will change his mind — it's been known to happen — but it's the first and only time I've ever seen an inside-the-park homer live. What a thrill!

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