From the emergence of Jered Weaver as an elite starter to the wretched start of Vernon Wells and back to Howie Kendrick’s breakout first half, the Angels first half of the season has seen a lot of ups and downs. At the end of it all, they stand at 50-42 and poised for what could be an epic battle with the Rangers for the 2011 AL West division title.
If the Angels are going to emerge victorious come the end of the season, they are going to need to keep getting strong performances from the kids and the veterans alike, but what they need more than anything is Torii Hunter to step his game up and lead the team on the field as well as he leads them in the clubhouse.
The Angels first-half success was predicated on their outstanding pitching, something they can expect to sustain them in the second half. Even with the continued dominance of Jered Weaver and Dan Haren, the Angels are far from a lock to regain their AL West crown, not with the offense always a looming threat to drag the team down. But as we have seen the last few weeks, if the lineup can produce with some consistency, the Angels are very difficult to beat. Figuring out how to keep that offensive momentum going should be the team’s paramount concern the rest of the way.
Since addressing that issue via trade is looking less and less likely, the Angels will have to look within to keep their offensive fire lit. They shouldn’t have to look far though as one man has the ability to stoke those flames: Torii Hunter.
Yes, I am talking about Torii Hunter, he of the .250/.321/.396 slash line. That Torii Hunter may not have performed very well in the first half, but if he can transmogrify back to something resembling the .800+ OPS version of Torii Hunter we’d been accustomed to up until this year, then the Halos would suddenly be getting some much needed punch and production in the middle of the order for the low, low price of absolutely nothing.
And the “middle of the order” part is a key factor to focus on. Despite his season long struggles, Hunter hasn’t made a single start below fourth in the order all season long. Call it Vladimir Guerrero Syndrome, the veteran slugger who has earned Mike Scioscia’s trust to the point that no matter how bad he performs, Sosh just won’t drop him in the order, meaning the only way the Angels are finally going to solve their middle of the order production issues is if Hunter does it himself.
More important than that though is that Torii is the undisputed team leader and thus the man the rest of the team will be looking to when the pressure starts to mount during the playoff hunt. And I’m not talking about him keeping the locker room loose and boosting the team’s spirits with his words, I’m talking about setting an example with his actions.
So many members of this team are either so young (Bourjos, Trumbo, Conger) or never really been in a playoff race before (Wells, Callaspo) and are going to need Hunter to show them the way to handle the pennant race pressure. But that is only going to happen if Hunter shows he can handle the pressure himself. We only need to look back to the second half of last season to see how Torii put so much pressure on himself to carry the offense in the second half that he eventually stressed himself into a slump and the feint Halo playoff hopes crumbled along with Hunter’s production.
That can’t happen again.
The last thing the young Halos need to see is Hunter grinding his bat handle into sawdust at the plate in mid-August because he is stuck in a slump and the team isn’t winning. Nor do they necessarily need to see him hitting homers every game and flipping his bat afterwards. They just need Hunter to remain calm, cool and collected while producing at a near career-average levels.
Is that really so much to ask? I don’t think so, but we didn’t get much of that in the first half either. However, what little of the Hunter of old we did see before the break was literally right before the break.
It may have taken a few months, but Torii finally started to heat up the last two weeks and seemed to be regaining his old form. Again, it isn’t even just the production (though the 1.137 July OPS doesn’t hurt), it is more about him flashing that big smile of his on a regular basis and, yes, flipping his bat after a homer while generally carrying himself with some swagger.
In fact, that is what this all really boils down to, swagger. Swagger is what the Angels need more than a lefty power bat or a righty setup man and Hunter is the only guy that can give the Angels the swagger infusion it needs.