ANAHEIM, Calif. – For all the power the Los Angeles Angels can now boast about – they have four players with 20 home runs or more and ranked fourth in the American League in slugging percentage this season – it’s a 5-foot-8 speedster who seems to strike the most fear in opponents.
“They’ve got speed and they’ve got power, and they have Chone Figgins at the top,” said New York Yankees ace CC Sabathia, who will start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Angels on Friday night in Yankee Stadium.
“When he gets on base and he’s running around, you’re worried about him. We’ve got to go out and keep those guys off the bases.”
Figgins, the Angels’ leadoff hitter and third baseman, is used to being singled out.
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“I’ve heard teams say they want to keep me off base,” Figgins said, “because when I get on base, I’m going to create havoc.”
But as productive and disruptive as he has been in seven big-league seasons, including a superb 2009 in which he hit .298 with a .395 on-base percentage, 114 runs, 101 walks and 42 stolen bases, Figgins hasn’t been much of a factor in the postseason.
In 29 games in nine playoff series since 2002, Figgins is batting .182 (18-for-99) with a .214 on-base percentage, 11 runs, four stolen bases, five RBI, 32 strikeouts and only three walks.
Granted, his last walk was one of the biggest of his career, a ninth-inning free pass that was part of a three-run rally that gave the Angels a 7-6 division-series clinching win over the Boston Red Sox on Sunday in Fenway Park.
But for the Angels to beat the powerful Yankees in the best-of-seven ALCS and advance to the World Series, they’re going to need Figgins to provide more of a spark.
“I know I need to get on base,” Figgins said after a workout in Angel Stadium. “I will get on base. When I do, I’m able to do so much. I can steal, take a base on a ball in the dirt, go from first to third on a single, score from first on a ball to the gap.”
Figgins did none of that against the Red Sox. The walk he drew in Game 3 was the first time he reached base in 13 division series plate appearances.
“I know he had a rough division series, but other guys stepped up and filled the void,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. “Imagine when Figgy gets hot. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Figgins has watched all of his postseason at-bats on tape, and if there is one common thread, it’s that pitchers “really concentrate on hitting their spots against me,” he said. “They’re not just coming right at me. Their pitches are on the black.”
He’s also run into plenty of bad luck. Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury “has robbed me three times,” Figgins said, including in Game 1, when Ellsbury made a diving catch after a long run to the right-center field gap to rob Figgins of a triple.
Figgins had a solid division series against Boston in 2008, batting .333 (7-for-21) with two walks, but he has not hit higher than .231 in any other playoff series.
Earlier in his career, Figgins chased a few too many balls out of the strike zone, but he has become a much more disciplined hitter this season.
Though he didn’t get a hit in Game 2, he went from 0 and 2 to a full count in one eight-pitch at-bat against Josh Beckett.
“As you get older, you find what makes you better, and you stick with it,” Figgins said. “I didn’t get a hit in that at-bat against Beckett, but I helped wear him out.”
It would help the Angels if Figgins gets on base against the Yankees, because then he can wear them out.
“When he’s on base, man, the game is so different,” Hunter said. “The batters get more fastballs, and the pitcher worries more about him than us. That’s the one guy they don’t want on base, so they pitch him tougher. But I’m confident the real Figgy will show up.”
Figgins’ first at-bat in Game 1 on Friday night could set the tone for the series.
“You want to put pressure on the other team, and if he gets something going, we can score early,” batting coach Mickey Hatcher said. “The team feeds off that. When he’s on base, the pitchers’ times to the plate are faster, they’re worried about the running game, and they get out of their rhythm.”
Even when he’s not on base, Figgins can still affect a game. The switch-hitter has developed into a Gold Glove-caliber defender, and he made two superb plays against the Red Sox in Game 1.
With runners on first and second in the sixth inning, two outs, and the Angels leading, 3-0, Kevin Youkilis hit a chopper down the line that a charging Figgins fielded on a tricky short hop before touching the bag for a force out.
With a runner on second in the eighth inning, Figgins made a lunging grab of Casey Kotchman’s one-hop smash to his left and threw to first base for the out.
“Defense is huge – you’ve got to play both sides of the ball,” said Figgins, who will become a free agent after this season. “If you’re not getting hits, you have to leave those at-bats at the plate.
“Once you’re in the field, you have to make plays, because those are huge in the playoffs. It also helps keeps your confidence up if you’re contributing in some way.”