By Doug Padilla
ANAHEIM – The strongest link that holds the Angels’ chain together might just be one of the quietest players in the clubhouse.
Casey Kotchman might not say a whole lot, preferring to let his game do all the talking. And his game sure has been chatting it up lately.
“Kotch,” as he is known, not only has been the steadiest influence on the offense, but his stellar play on defense has helped the Angels through a slew of changes on the infield due to injuries. That defense, in turn, has been one reason the starting pitching has been so steady of late.
Call Kotchman a triple threat. He’s one of the few Angels players that can say he has a hand in offense, defense and pitching.
“When you have a guy over there at first base that plays at the level Kotch does, these guys are just going to catch the ball and release knowing that if they can get the ball over there, Kotch is going to make the play; he will dig it out,” manager Mike Scioscia said.
Not having to worry about making the perfect throw has been a godsend to youngsters like Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez, who have been called upon because of injuries to Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick.
Kotchman’s presence gives Wood and Rodriguez one less thing to worry about as they try to adapt to the major-league level.
“I would like for those guys to be confident when they throw the ball over they that they have a good chance of it being caught,” Kotchman said. “When it doesn’t happen, I feel like I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain. If I don’t save them an error, I’m not doing my part.”
Wood hasn’t been around very long but he has no problem saying that Kotchman is one of the best in the game.
“It’s great to have a guy like Kotch over there who can pick it (out of the dirt),” said Wood, who did make an error Wednesday after Kotchman couldn’t handle his throw in the dirt. “It gives us a sense confidence over there to get rid of the ball quick and he’ll make the play. I think he takes just as much pride in picking it as he does in hitting it.”
Without Kotchman, Scioscia doesn’t think the Angels would be leading the American League in defense.
“Sometimes you have to get the ball over there in time because the guy has good speed and it could put pressure on you and affect your accuracy,” Scioscia said. “We don’t skip a beat over there with a guy like Kotch because he’s playing great defense and making great plays around the bag.”
Great plays mean that the pitchers aren’t having to get extra outs. One less batter means one less chance to get burned.
In the month of May, Angels pitchers have held opponents to two runs or less in 12 of the 25 games before Wednesday, including each of the previous eight. The starters had a combined 1.29 ERA over the previous five games, while the team ERA was 2.36 over the previous 14 games.
The Angels’ problem of late has been with offensive production, something that Kotchman can’t take the blame for. He entered Wednesday with a team-leading .310 batting average and is one of just two Angels regulars, along with Chone Figgins, who is batting over .300.
Kotchman also has six home runs, although he has not gone deep since April 23 at Boston. He still has managed to produce this month, even though not too many of his teammates are getting on base in front or behind him in the lineup.
Kotchman has driven in nine runs this month and scored eight. He is also batting .273 in May, even though the team’s combined batting average is under .230.
But Kotchman knows that even the hottest of offensive runs eventually goes cold. He refuses to let his glove take a day off, though.
“I think playing defense is something that can and should be there on a night-to-night basis,” he said. “If your bat comes and goes, you need to make some contribution to the other side of the game. You can help pitchers out by picking a ball or turning a double play, keep the game moving along and keep their pitch counts down.”