In Morales' absence, Matsui picks it up

SEATTLE -- Almost a week ago, when things were looking dark and hopeless in the wake of Kendry Morales' freak injury, Los Angeles Angels manager Mike Scioscia talked about a handful of veteran players whose performances had been "woefully" below their career norms.

When some of those players started to look like approximations of their former selves, Scioscia figured, this team would finally have a chance to gain a little traction.

He probably didn't expect it to happen this quickly. The Angels didn't make a trade for another offensive weapon; they just got one back. There had to be a reason the Angels are 5-1 without their best hitter, right?

Rock bottom for Hideki Matsui came about a week before the Morales injury. On May 19 in Chicago, he went 0 for 3, which was preceded by an 0 for 3 and an 0 for 4. His batting average dipped to .224.

Matsui had to nurse his pride on the bench in two of the Angels' next three games in St. Louis. He admitted at one point he wondered whether his age, 35, and an arthritic left knee were eroding his talent.

Since then, Matsui's rise has been meteoric, his bat doing what the Angels counted on Morales to do. He has reached base in 10 straight at-bats and smacked 10 hits in his last 14 at-bats. He has more than one hit in each of his last four games. His average is now a respectable .265, the best it has been since May 1.

"I just think he's seeing the ball better. His balance is there, his timing is where it needs to be and, obviously, he's been very, very productive," Scioscia said.

Matsui said he hasn't found a magic pill to snap him out of the worst funk of his career. He said it has been a slow process, a matter of feeling a little better in batting practice one day andseeing a bloop hit fall in a game in another. He has always put his focus on balance. Lately, he hasn't been lunging or jumping at pitches.

"I felt if I just kept working every day towards getting better, that I believe at least -- in myself -- that things were going to get better eventually," Matsui said through an interpreter.

Matsui isn't the only veteran Angel who has suddenly found a measure of consistency after a long downward spiral.

The bottom for Joe Saunders came on May 3, the night the Boston Red Sox embarrassed the Angels 17-8. Saunders fell to 1-5 that night at Fenway Park and his ERA swelled to a grotesque 7.04.

Since then, step by baby step, he has looked more and more like the reliable starter the Angels figured they had in excess this spring.

Saunders has gone 3-1 since, whittling his ERA to 4.78. He's not quite at the level of his 2008 All-Star season. His stuff isn't as crisp, and he has struggled to pitch deep into games. But compared to those early-season outings, he's giving the Angels plenty to feel comfortable about.

"There's definitely more in the tank," Saunders said. "I feel I need to pitch more consistently for the ballclub -- not throw a couple good ones together, then a bad one."

In closing

There is a debate raging over who should be the Angels' closer. On one side is Scioscia. On the other, seemingly, is everybody else who has watched the Angels this year.

Brian Fuentes has saved seven games, blown three, has a 5.93 ERA and has given up a home run to a right-handed hitter roughly once every seven at-bats. Fernando Rodney, meanwhile, is 4-0 with a 2.95 ERA and has saved 42 of his last 43 chances stretching to last year.

Scioscia said he's hesitant to make a change until he can rely on one of the Angels' other relievers -- say, Kevin Jepsen, Scot Shields or Jason Bulger -- to pitch the eighth inning consistently well.

"If you're taking Fuentes from the ninth into the eighth inning, you can lose games in the eighth inning just as easily," Scioscia said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense. If you're going to move everyone back and start flipping roles, you'd better have depth coming up. We're still waiting for some depth to emerge."

Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said Fuentes' struggles are a combination of sketchy command with his fastball and inconsistency with his slider -- a key to retiring right-handed batters. Fuentes has been good against lefties, who are batting .118 without a homer against him.

"He's got to get his confidence to the point where he knows, if he throws the slider, he can get it under right-handers' bats," Butcher said.

Scioscia's remembrance

Scioscia first met John Wooden eight years ago when he was invited to Wooden's house after the Angels' World Series victory. He renewed the acquaintance periodically; Wooden would stop by the Angels' clubhouse about once a year.

Scioscia saw Wooden in January at a barbecue in Pacific Palisades that Dodgers manager Joe Torre also attended. Scioscia learned during Friday's game that Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach, had died at the age of 99 earlier in the day.

"It's definitely something all of us that have read his books or gotten to talk and know him, the influence he had on many of us," Scioscia said. "We definitely need to bring that forward and pass it down to the next generation."

Quote of the day

"It probably came from somewhere." -- Matsui on his new sense of timing and balance at the plate.

Looking ahead

Ervin Santana figured this spring he was due for a breakout year. He might be right, although it took more than a month for that form to show up.

Santana (5-3, 3.43 ERA) is the Angels' hottest starter, having won his last four starts. In his last nine, the Angels are 7-2 and Santana has a 2.80 ERA.

The Angels face Ryan Rowland-Smith, a left-hander from Australia, today. Rowland-Smith is coming out of the bullpen to fill in for Doug Fister, who has a fatigued right shoulder. Rowland-Smith is 0-4 with a 7.23 ERA. He has faced the Angels nine times, three as a starter, and is 0-2 with a 3.29 ERA against them.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.