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Morales ably fills void left by Teixeira

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – As first baseman for Gigantes del Cibao, the winter team in northern Dominican Republic, Kendry Morales(notes) did not bother chasing the daily reports of Mark Teixeira's(notes) free agency.

It wasn't so much that he didn't care. He did. The course of his career depended on the outcome. But there was no sense looking for the news when it so frequently and easily found him.

As Teixeira's offseason tale wound through Boston and Washington D.C. and Baltimore and Los Angeles and then finally New York, Morales' phone would ring and purr and flash, and his teammates would pass along what they'd seen and heard, and all the subject lines in his emails would read the same.

"It was almost like I didn't have to follow it," he said through translator Jose Mota on Friday afternoon, hours before the Los Angeles Angels would host Teixeira and the New York Yankees, "because everybody was reminding me, telling me about what was going on."

Two days before Christmas, after months of speculation and weeks of haggling and a very public withdrawal from the process by Angels owner Arte Moreno, Teixeira, the half-season Angel, signed with the Yankees, meaning Morales – 25 years old, five years out of Cuba and the Angels' best first-base alternative were Teixeira to walk – was all but assured of his first regular work in the big leagues.

"While it was obvious once he didn't sign with the Angels," Morales said, "it wasn't like the job was going to be assigned to me. But the opportunity was going to be there."

In a season of uncertainty for the Angels – Vladimir Guerrero(notes) went to the disabled list Friday again, Torii Hunter(notes) joined him, and another starting pitcher (Joe Saunders(notes) this time) was clobbered – Morales has been one of the few steady ones. It is not the departure of Teixeira that is to blame for the three months of uneven play by the Angels, and really that's about as well as Morales was ever going to do.

"I'm pretty satisfied," he said. "I still take it like it's a new day. I'm not quite settled and Mark is such a great player. But, I feel good about the work I've been doing."

The Yankees, on the other hand, hardly lose anymore, and Teixeira is right in the middle of it. He arrived on the last leg of what he playfully called, "my homecoming tour," those stops being split into the Welcome Back Division (Texas, Atlanta) and Snubbed Division (Baltimore, Boston, Anaheim). After batting .358 in the regular season for the Angels and .467 in the division series, Teixeira rejected their $160 million offer and on Friday night at Angel Stadium he was booed for it, presumably by all the folks who'd have no use for the extra $20 million the Yankees shoveled at him.

"But," Teixeira said, grinning, "I get booed in every stadium. That's the great thing about being a Yankee."

You know what he means.

Anyway, as much as Teixeira seemed to enjoy his few months in SoCal, he clearly adores being a Yankee in New York. He didn't hit for average early and hasn't hit for power lately, but generally has contributed all those things Teixeira contributes; the superior defense, the heady at-bats, the regular production and the hard-edged baserunning. The Yankees love him in the clubhouse and lean on him in the lineup, particularly with Alex Rodriguez(notes) in recovery mode and problems of their own in the pitching department.

"Once May hit, I started getting hits and we started winning," Teixeira said, "and it started to become a real good place to play."

For now, it is the Yankees who are winning and the Angels, paddling hard against injuries and a hit-and-miss rotation, who desperately need the few dark days coming up. But even when it's been just so-so for the Angels, they haven't really missed Teixeira, or not as much as some might have believed.

Morales, who would have jumped between the outfield, third base and first (all positions he played in Cuba) had Teixeira stayed, instead has been steady and dependable at first, the switch-hitter playing against all right-handers and some lefties. On Friday night he hit his 15th home run (all of them from the left side), this from a gorgeous no-effort swing that jolted a Joba Chamberlain(notes) curveball nearly 450 feet to center field. The homer covered the final three runs of what had been a four-run deficit for the Angels.

He's not Teixeira, of course. But teammates like him because the game never gets too big or too fast for him, and because he's a natural hitter.

"He's not afraid," Torii Hunter said.

And they like him because he's come a long way defensively. And because he really, really wants to learn the language.

Morales says he escaped Cuba on his eighth try, and that he served a little time in prison after each of the first seven. Had the eighth attempt not worked, he said, he would have tried again.

That's how bad he wanted to do this. So, he'll stand in for Teixeira, sure. It's why he's here.

"When I stop and think about everything I've been through – the roads, the oceans, everything I had to crawl through – I have to take advantage of being here," he said. "I mean, with all I had to do, I count my blessings. But, there's no way I'm going to say I've arrived. Not yet."

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