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Hunter bringing big game this year


Hunter bringing big game this year
Hypothetical question: Would it be easier to sneak past Torii Hunter with a hanging curveball or without saying hello?

The answer, of course, is neither.

At the plate, the Angels outfielder has often made a habit of punishing just about any pitch that comes within reach. And in the clubhouse, where Hunter's outsized personality stands out on a team about as colorful as a snowdrift, no one gets by without his asking, quot;Hey, how ya doing?quot;

But this spring Hunter has taken both the clubhouse charm and the batter's box harm to new levels. And not surprisingly, they're related.

A month into his second season with the Angels , Hunter says he is starting to feel more comfortable in his new surroundings and that has made him more comfortable on the field.

quot;I am, man. I promise I am,quot; he says. quot;Even though my character, my personality, is outgoing and everything like that, I didn't want to step on any toes [last year].

quot;So when I got here I was kind of laid-back. I wanted to please my teammates, the fans and everything. But this year it's a totally different ballgame. I feel like I'm a part of the family. I'm having a lot of fun right now.quot;

And that's paid off for the Angels , who have seen the normally slow-starting Hunter get off to a torrid beginning this season, batting .338 -- 65 points above his career average for April -- while leading the team in home runs (seven) and runs batted in (14) heading into an eight-game trip that opens tonight in Baltimore.

That hasn't led to many wins; the Angels (7-11) hit the road in last place in the American League West. But you can't blame that on Hunter. Entering Monday his .754 slugging percentage was second-best in Baseball and his home run total had him tied for second. And all seven have been clutch, either tying the score, putting the Angels ahead or pulling them to within a run.

quot;Torii right now is swinging the bat great,quot; Manager Mike Scioscia says. quot;This isn't something you have to explain. This is something Torii has the capability of doing.quot;

Hunter has shown leadership in other ways, too. In the difficult days following pitcher Nick Adenhart's death in a traffic accident, Hunter was among those who stepped forward, baring his soul to the public while grieving in private with teammates. Then when he and pitcher Darren Oliver were stranded in Texas after their commercial flight was canceled, Hunter chartered a private jet so neither would miss that night's game.

quot;Being a clubhouse leader -- being a leader, period -- is among your peers,quot; he says. quot;I don't come in and say, 'I'm the leader in the clubhouse. This is my house.' I just be me.

quot;I lead because I have experience. I'm a veteran. When guys come to me and they talk to me, I know they respect me. If guys come to me or if I see them down, I go and tell them my experiences because I had a lot of failures in my life. If you're failing, I've been there. Let me tell you what I did to get out of it.quot;

But truth be told, Hunter's turnaround -- he had 21 homers and 78 RBIs last year, the lowest full-season totals of his career -- is a product of more than simply a new inner peace. Late in spring training, Hunter also changed his approach at the plate and that has made a huge impact, says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher.

quot;One of the things that he's really trying to work on is trying to create a box, a zone up there, especially with two strikes -- trying to make that pitch be in a certain zone,quot; Hatcher says.

If the pitch comes through that zone, Hunter takes a rip. If not, he'll let it go. As a result, he's become more patient and more aggressive at the same time.

quot;And it's starting to work for him,quot; Hatcher says. quot;He's been swinging the bat great. Probably the best I've ever seen him.quot;

It may be contagious because the Angels' offense, after batting only .257 and averaging less than 3.9 runs in their first eight games, has come on in the last eight, hitting nearly 40 points better and scoring nearly six runs a game.

Howie Kendrick broke out of a four-for-31 slump with five hits and six RBIs over the weekend, Gary Matthews Jr. has hit safely in eight of his last 10 games and Bobby Abreu has had multiple hits in nine of the Angels' last 11 games, raising his average to .375, seventh-best in the majors.

Abreu, 35, also ranks second in the majors in stolen bases with eight in as many tries.

quot;I've got to represent the 35-year-olds,quot; Abreu says with a broad smile, not unlike the megawatt grin Hunter is flashing across the room.

Clearly Abreu, in his first month with the Angels , is already fitting in. And Hunter may deserve some of the credit for that, too.

quot;These guys make it easy,quot; Abreu says. quot;They're a nice group over here. They make you feel comfortable right away.quot;

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

--

Angels TONIGHT

AT BALTIMORE

When: 4 PDT.

Where: Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 830, 1330.

Probable pitchers: Joe Saunders vs. Adam Eaton. Wednesday: Shane Loux (0-2, 6.61) vs. Koji Uehara (2-1, 4.56).

Update: Saunders gave up five runs in five innings against the Tigers his last time out, his worst performance since Aug. 27. But a trip to Baltimore may be exactly what Saunders needs; he is 4-0 in five starts against the Orioles, including two wins at Camden Yards. The Angels have had recent success against the Orioles too, having won the last five season series. Eaton is coming off a strong outing in which he held the Chicago White Sox to two runs in seven innings, striking out nine. But he's had little luck against the Angels , who are batting .328 against him in six starts. And his 6.16 ERA against them is the highest against any American League team he has faced more than once.

-- Kevin Baxter


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: April 28, 2009

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