When the topic of how the Angels would replace departed second baseman Howie Kendrick came up this spring, Manager Mike Scioscia and General Manager Jerry Dipoto often spoke of the need for new left fielder Matt Joyce, designated hitter C.J. Cron and third baseman David Freese to fill Kendrick’s offensive void.
It was almost as if they didn’t expect any of the four candidates competing for the second-base job to provide a fraction of the production that Kendrick, a line-drive machine who had a .293 career average before he was traded to the Dodgers in December, did for nearly a decade in Anaheim.
But while Joyce (.148), Cron (.208) and Freese (.210) have struggled, the stout 5-foot-8, 185-pounder who won the second-base job -- Johnny Giavotella -- has done a pretty fair impersonation of Kendrick through the season’s first month.
Giavotella executed a hit-and-run play in the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday night, lining a double down the right-field line to score Erick Aybar from first base and give the Angels a dramatic 4-3 walk-off win over the Seattle Mariners at Angel Stadium.
It was the first walk-off hit of his career and team-leading fifth game-winning run batted in this season for Giavotella, who is batting .286 with one home run, four doubles, 12 RBIs and nine runs and has played solid, if not spectacular, defense.
Not bad for a guy who played sparingly for the Kansas City Royals in 2011 and 2012 and spent most of 2013 and 2014 with the Royals’ triple-A team in Omaha.
“Johnny brings a lot of energy, he’s worked really hard on his defense, and on the offensive side, he’s just a tough out,” Scioscia said. “He has been at every level in the minor leagues. Now he’s getting the opportunity in big leagues and is showing that he’s a tough at-bat. He’s been one of those bright spots since the season began.”
Giavotella hit ninth for most of April, but with the Angels struggling to score runs and deepen their lineup, he has shuttled between the second, sixth and seventh spots this past week. He has hit sixth behind Aybar in the past three games.
“That middle of the order is important,” Scioscia said. “We’ve been striking out a bit in situations, but Johnny brings some contact, combined with Erick. Those guys are going to put the ball in play, and if they find a hole, it’s going to help us score runs. We’ll keep trying to shuffle this deck until we find the right combinations, but right now Johnny is good in a nice RBI spot. He’s gotten some big hits for us.”
Going into the season, Giavotella, 27, said his goal wasn’t to replace Kendrick but to be the best Giavotella he could be. He knows he can’t hit for the kind of power Kendrick did, and he knows his throwing arm isn’t as strong.
But that doesn’t mean he can’t bring high energy and effort, an ability to get on base and drive in runs and make the plays he should make in the field.
“He’s fun to watch,” center fielder Mike Trout said of Giavotella. “He stays within himself. He doesn’t try to hit home runs. He tries to square up the baseball, hit line drives, keep the same approach. And he brings a lot of energy to the dugout.”
Giavotella prepares for situations like the ninth inning Wednesday night every day in batting practice, when he opens his first round by simulating hit-and-run plays and pounding grounders to the right side.
“You have to work on it in BP,” Giavotella said. “I’m constantly taking my first couple swings as if they’re hit-and-run plays, trying to hit a hard ground ball somewhere, preferably through the second-base hole. That was my mindset going into that pitch. I hit it down the right-field line, and we won the game.”