ANAHEIM, Calif. — Four months ago the baseball season was just beginning, but for the Los Angeles Angels it seemed all but over. First baseman Kendrys Morales was gone for the year, along with his towering home runs. Outfielder Vernon Wells was on the disabled list and the team itself seemed incapable of scoring a run.
Somebody needed to give the team a lift.
And two youngsters did.
Infielder Mark Trumbo and outfielder Peter Bourjos, both Salt Lake Bees stars in 2010, began playing like vets. They seemed — writer Jim Murray might say — to mature faster than mayflies.
"A lot of things are different up here," Trumbo told the Deseret News. "The pitchers are better, the crowds are bigger. But if you do your best and learn to adjust as quickly as possible, you soon fall into your natural rhythm and start playing your own game."
Bourjos offers a similar thought.
"It helped that I spent time up here last year," he says. "The carry over into spring training just made me feel more comfortable. I learned to calm down in the batter's box. I just had to relax and stay with the approach I learned in Triple-A ball."
In short, baseball is not just about "getting home," it's about "feeling at home."
Keith Johnson, manager of the Salt Lake Bees, calls it "the confidence of the familiar."
"The hardest thing about going to another level of play — especially the big league level — is feeling at ease," he says. "The more familiar you are with the pitchers, the umpires, the stadiums, even the weather, the more comfortable you will feel. And the more comfortable you feel, the more confident you get."
And this summer comfort and confidence have been oozing off Bourjos and Trumbo. Bourjos has made himself the franchise centerfielder of the future and Trumbo is being mentioned as the odds-on favorite for Rookie of the Year.
How have they done it?
First, both have benefited from a farm system that is consistent in its approach. Angel players play aggressive baseball. They take the extra base, draw the extra throw, whether they are playing in Anaheim or Orem. Bourjos, with his speed, has been a natural with the Big League club — sometimes scoring from first on singles and stretching doubles into triples. He's currently batting near .280 and has proven to be a Gold Glove candidate.
Yet even speedy "small ball" teams need a big stick in the middle of the lineup to clear the bases. And the Angels have been desperately searching for one. It's why Vernon Wells was brought in this year — with mixed results. Vlad Guerrero left last year to join the Orioles. The Angels did get Mark Teixera for a spell, until he headed to New York. And then there was powerhouse Morales, who jumped on home plate, broke his foot and has been sidelined for two years.
For such reasons, the early blossoming of Trumbo as a power hitter has been a godsend for a team crying for a little pop.
Toward the end of August, Trumbo was leading the team — and all other rookies in the league — with 23 home runs and 71 runs batted in. Last year with the Bees he led the PCL in both categories, along with runs scored. He made the leap to L.A. without missing a beat.
"There are a lot of misconceptions about Triple-A ball," he explains. "People think of it's where pitchers only throw fastballs. But there is a lot of talent down there. Up here, I'm just not missing as many good pitches to hit as I did earlier. The coaches in Salt Lake City were good teachers. I enjoyed working with Epp (batting coach, Jim Eppard). He kept things simple and taught me things that I've needed in the Big Leagues."
As for the road ahead, Johnson is optimistic about the two young stars, but does sound a cautionary note.
"The easy part is getting to the Big Leagues," he says. "The hard part is staying there. Players in the Big Leagues play at high level every single day. The game there is not forgiving of your down days. Players are not only gifted physically, they're gifted mentally. The good ones never allow themselves to take a night off. Up there, if you're not mentally on top of your game all the time, the mistakes will find you.
There's an old saying, 'Give me 100 percent of whatever your have. If you can only play at 60 percent, give me 100 percent of that.' And at the Big League level, 60 percent is pretty doggone good."
Getting acclimated, he says again, is the key.
He smiles now at the first time he got in to a Big League game as a pinch runner for Mo Vaughn.
"As I ran out to second base," he says, "I kept thinking how uneven the turf was in the Sky Dome. I was high steppin' it the whole way, saying 'Don't trip! Don't trip! Don't trip!"
He made it just fine.
And something in the demeanor, maturity and patience of Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos — the Angel Boy Wonders — says they likely won't be tripping either.