CHICAGO – Were the act of a slump to manifest itself physically, surely it would do so in a full beard grown past the normal stubble, eyes black and blue with worry and the overall look of a sloven. Or, specifically, the uniform Los Angeles Angels catcher Mike Napoli currently sports.
Slumps are beasts like that, and Napoli, one of five rookies currently on the Angels' roster, is in a doozy. Since July 15, he is 3 for 43, all of his hits singles. He's getting more and more days off, too, because the Angels, three games back of the Oakland Athletics in the American League West, can ill afford to fall further behind.
Such is the quandary when rookies start to weave themselves into a team's fabric. They are fragile, a quality that strikes fear in everyone, contenders particularly, and yet they are also impervious to the scale of the chase because they know no better. Striking the right balance – well, that's one not even the world's greatest tightrope artist can do. Though Mike Scioscia often tries to fashion himself just that.
Scioscia is the Angels' manager, and this whole play-the-kids thing is old hat. Of all the teams annually in contention, the Angels are perhaps the most aggressive in promoting prospects and letting them play in burdensome situations. And so it is again this year, with Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders in the rotation, professional hitter Howie Kendrick playing a super-utility role, Tommy Murphy substituting defensively in the outfield and Napoli, slump willing to abate, behind the plate, that the Angels will live and die by the rookie.
"We're not going to shy away from letting our talent come up here and see what they can do," Scioscia said. "You're never going to have a perfect team of nine budding veterans who are at the prime of their peak out there at one time. It's time for these kids."
Or: Please, please, please let this be like 2002, when three rookie pitchers led the Angels to their first World Series championship. John Lackey stabilized the Angels' rotation in the second half and won Game 7 of the World Series. Brendan Donnelly, a 31-year-old, pitched 7 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in the World Series. And Francisco Rodriguez, who had pitched all of five games in the big leagues, won five games in the playoffs and struck out 28 in 18 2/3 innings.
And: Please, please, please don't let this be like 2004 and 2005, when can't-miss prospects Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson, whether because of injuries or lack of ability, did miss, and earlier this season, when catcher Jeff Mathis whiffed to the tune of a 4-for-39 start and was summarily dismissed to Triple-A.
Mathis' struggles, in fact, brought Napoli to the big leagues, and he was something of a revelation. Before the slump, he was hitting .288 with 12 home runs and 29 RBI in 146 at-bats.
Three weeks later, Angels designated hitter Tim Salmon, a 14-year veteran, was trying to whisper the slump out of Napoli in a long clubhouse conversation.
"As coaches, we talk daily to players," Angels pitching coach Bud Black said. "Our message, though, is taken differently than what a player says to a player. Talk to them. Communicate with them. Tell them. Teach them."
It's always so delicate, the equilibrium of veteran to rookie, and of a major-league-ready player to one who still needs time at Triple-A. Four more who have debuted with the Angels this season – top prospects Kendry Morales (first base) and Erick Aybar (shortstop), plus pitcher Dustin Moseley and outfielder Reggie Willits – are back in Salt Lake and readying for September call-ups, when they just might be this year's K-Rod.
"Experience is only useful if it makes a player play at a higher level than a rookie," Scioscia said. "In some instances, talent is just something that will play on that field. If you get a rookie to go out there and bring his talent on the field and not be intimidated by situations, there might be some rough edges you grow through, but the end product is going to be better."
All general manager Bill Stoneman and Scioscia can do is trust their instincts, because there is no proven formula. In his first stint with the Angels, for 10 games between April and May, he went 3 for 26. Since his recall July 15, Kendrick is 27 for 71 (.380) with 10 doubles.
Since it's unlikely that two months in the minor leagues made him a demonstrably better player, what is there, then, to explain Kendrick's sudden rise?
Faith in a kid, it seems.
Something that the Angels, as much as any team, need right now.
"Somebody can come up and be hot," Napoli said. "Somebody can come up and feel bad. It's weird how things happen. I was fortunate to prove myself early. But I've got to keep it going. It's not just coming here for a little bit. It's doing well all the time.
"We want to be in the playoff race. All of us are in here together to do one thing, and that's win a World Series. Us rookies – we're not here to do anything else."
- Mike Scioscia