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Anaheim ANGELS
David Fleming
March 29, 1999
To ward off another late-season collapse, the Angels have Mo power to 'em
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March 29, 1999

Anaheim Angels

To ward off another late-season collapse, the Angels have Mo power to 'em

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By the Numbers

1998 Team Statistics (AL rank)

1998 record: 85-77 (second in AL West)

BATTING AVERAGE

.272 (7)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.267 (5)

RUNS SCORED

787 (10)

ERA

4.49 (6)

HOME RUNS

147 (11)

FIELDING PCT.

.983 (5)

The first time slugger Mo Vaughn stepped into the batting cage at the Angels' spring training site in Tempe, Ariz., he couldn't get a pitch to hit. Everything was high and outside, in on the wrists or down in the dirt. Vaughn, the former Red Sox first baseman who signed a six-year, $80 million contract with Anaheim in November, was about to explode. Then he realized the guy pitching to him, Hall of Famer Rod Carew, the Angels' hitting instructor, was simply testing his new pupil. So Vaughn dug in and ripped Carew's next pitch right back at him. With that, the two burst into thunderous laughter. Vaughn is a happy camper again.

"For whatever reason, I was not wanted where I was," Vaughn says. "Playing in Boston was like adding dog years to my life. I came here because I wanted a real opportunity to win and improve. So that moment in the cage, realizing the talent on this club and the kind of guy who would be working with me and challenging me for the next six years, it felt like a breath of fresh air. It felt like I was finally home."

Over the last four seasons Vaughn, 31, has hit .320 and averaged 39 homers and 120 RBIs. But after their repeated late-season collapses, the Angels needed to sign Vaughn as much for his clubhouse presence as for his prowess at the plate. In 1995 Anaheim blew a 12½-game lead over the Mariners, and last season the team faded again, dropping a three-game series in the final week to the Rangers, who wound up winning the division. "What we were missing at the end of 1998 was a guy who was willing to say, 'Get on my back, I'll take care of this team,' " says general manager Bill Bavasi. "We want Mo to take the leadership role; that's important to us."

The upside for Vaughn is that he gets tutored by Carew, a seven-time batting champ who should help him cut down on his strikeouts (144 last year), and that he'll be well protected in the Anaheim lineup. Designated hitter and leadoff man Darin Erstad had 19 homers and 82 RBIs last year, despite missing 39 of the last 52 games with a strained left hamstring. Centerfielder Jim Edmonds led the team in average and RBIs, and was second in homers. Hitting behind Vaughn in the four and five spots are outfielders Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson, who combined for 118 extra-base hits in 1998.

All of which sounds encouraging—as long as the Angels avoid the freak injuries that have beset them of late. Last year lefthander Chuck Finley was hit twice by line drives, the second time while sitting on the bench, and, hampered by his injuries, went a woeful 3-5 after the All-Star break. Then in February shortstop Gary DiSarcina suffered a broken left arm when he walked into the swing of a coach hitting grounders. After Finley had his face smashed by a bat that slipped from pitcher Mike James's grip two years ago, some players have insisted that the team is jinxed because its Tempe training camp was built over an ancient Indian burial ground. They're starting to believe that only a personality as forceful as Vaughn's can counteract that curse.

"This is already Mo Vaughn's clubhouse," says DiSarcina, who will miss just the first week of the season. "Some guys worked out with more intensity this winter knowing Mo was going to be around. Ownership sent a very clear message when they got Mo: This team's not going to settle for being second best."

It's too bad Vaughn can't pitch. While his acquisition made the Angels the favorite to win the West, what they really need to win a pennant is one more quality starter. After failing to land free agents Kevin Brown or Randy Johnson, Anaheim had to settle for 37-year-old righthander Tim Belcher. One of only four pitchers to have worked 200 innings or more every year since 1991, Belcher signed a two-year, $10.2 million deal and will add depth and a Vaughn-like purposefulness to the staff. While with the Dodgers, Belcher once challenged umpire Ed Montague to a fight after an extra-innings loss. "I can't wait for him to do something like that here," DiSarcina says. "His intensity is going to mean a lot to this club."

So will the health of starters Finley, 36, and Ken Hill, 33, who had bone chips removed from his right elbow in June. Hill started the season 5-1 with a 2.50 ERA before his elbow woes began, and this winter he switched to a more compact windup to take stress off that joint. "When he's at full strength, Ken is hard to beat," says manager Terry Collins. "He's the key to our staff; he can be the difference for us."

Closer Troy Percival led the relief corps with a career-high 42 saves in 1998, and righthander Rich Delucia was one of the few Angels who improved their numbers down the stretch. In the second half DeLucia held batters to a .187 average.

Anaheim is counting on Vaughn to prevent another September swoon. "I want to win the World Series," says Vaughn, his voice loud enough for everyone in the clubhouse to hear. "The fear of failing is what brings the intensity and urgency to my game. Anyone can see this club is very, very talented, so this year there can be no excuses for losing. Absolutely none."

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