A chance encounter

All he ever wanted was a chance to play.

That's why, as a skinny 8-year-old growing up in Cuba, he picked up a baseball in the first place.

That's why, two weeks before his 21st birthday, he left Cuba and everything he had ever known to come to the U.S.

And that's why Kendry Morales, perhaps alone among his Angels teammates, cheered Mark Teixeira's decision to bolt Anaheim for Yankee Stadium after last season, leaving first base open for him.

"The only thing I needed was the opportunity to play every day," Morales says. "That was the only thing missing."

Morales isn't missing much of anything now, least of all fat pitches. Heading into the opener of a 10-game trip tonight in Baltimore, Morales is hitting .303 and ranks among the American League leaders in five offensive categories, including home runs (25), runs batted in (76) and slugging percentage (.581).

Yet the most surprising thing about that is that none of it is surprising the Angels.

"That's the potential he's always had," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's no fluke that he's playing well. He's worked hard at it, he has the talent and he's playing at a very high level."

Morales was hailed as a "can't-miss" prospect when he defected five years ago. A former rookie of the year in the Cuban league, he broke a 30-year-old RBIs record in his first season and a year later he was batting cleanup for the island's powerful national team.

The problem with "can't-miss" prospects from Cuba, though, is that many of them do miss. Some disastrously so.

"Kendry was a kid when we signed him," Scioscia says. "He played in high competition with Cuba in international baseball but nothing like the major leagues. When he came into the organization he was very raw."

Very big too.

"The joke on him is he spent 18 years in Cuba trying to eat," Scioscia says. "He came to this country and made it up in six months."

Says Morales sheepishly: "I was a little overweight."

But after signing an incentive-laden contract with the Angels in December 2004, Morales, still stocky at 6 feet 1, 225 pounds, turned his appetite to opposing pitchers, hitting better than .300 at every minor league stop, twice hitting .341 in the triple-A Pacific Coast League.

Yet he struggled in three trials with the Angels, batting .249 and striking out twice as often as he walked.

"A fan doesn't know how hard it is for a bench player," says hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, a bench player himself for much of his 12-year big league career. "You're not playing for three or four or five days and you're jumping in there, a guy who's throwing 95. You have no idea what you're doing. The game's feel. When you're playing every day, that feel is just better."

So early last fall the Angels made the decision that Morales, who played six positions in Cuba, would play regularly this season. But it was two days before Christmas, when Teixeira signed his $180-million deal with the Yankees, before they knew where.

"I was just waiting," Morales, who was playing in the Dominican winter league at the time, says in Spanish. "When they made the decision to give me the opportunity, I felt better because I knew where I was going."

That decision has paid off for the Angels in ways other than the stat sheet. Confident that the switch-hitting Morales was ready, they let Teixeira go, saving enough money to sign outfielder Juan Rivera for three years, closer Brian Fuentes for two years and outfielder Bobby Abreu and pitcher Darren Oliver for one season.

"You lose a guy like Teixeira, you're banking on a guy that you really believe can do the job," Hatcher says. "We did. And this guy's proven himself."

A work in progress at first base -- his six errors are five more than Teixeira has for the Yankees -- Morales has nonetheless improved tremendously. And not only defensively.

"His growth from when he first signed, it's off the charts," Scioscia says. "Everything from baserunning to understanding what pitchers are going to try to do to get him out."

Credit Abreu with an assist on that last one. The only Angel with more RBIs (77) than Morales, Abreu is constantly pushing his teammate to improve his mental approach at the plate.

"We already know the guy can hit," Abreu says. "But if you have your mind prepared, it's going to help you get better. He likes to ask questions. He has now more of a clue about situations in the game. He has more of a clue about what's happening."

And Morales appears to be merely getting warmed up, hitting .400 while leading the league with five homers and 15 RBIs in August. Still, at 26 and more than seven weeks shy of his first full big league season, he admits he has a lot more to learn. Like just how good he can be, for example.

"This year, when the season started, I set a goal of 25 home runs," Morales says. "I got to where I wanted to be. The only thing left is to get better."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

First impressions

How Kendry Morales' season stacks up against selected best seasons of other Angels first basemen:

*--* Year Player G R HR RBI AVG. SLG% 1962 Lee Thomas 160 88 26 104 290 467 1967 Don Mincher 147 81 25 76 273 487 1980 Rod Carew 144 74 3 59 331 437 1987 Wally Joyner 149 100 34 117 285 528 1995 J.T. Snow 143 80 22 102 289 465 2000 Mo Vaughn 161 93 36 117 272 498 2009 Kendry Morales 104 60 25 76 303 581 *--*

Source: baseball-reference.com

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AT BALTIMORE

* Tonight, 4 PDT, FSW

* Saturday, 4 PDT, FSW

* Sunday, 10:30 a.m., Ch. 13

* Monday, 4 PDT, FSW

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ANGELS TONIGHT

AT BALTIMORE

When: 4 PDT.

Where: Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

On the air: TV: FS West. Radio: 830, 1330.

Probable pitchers: Jered Weaver vs. Chris Tillman; Saturday, 4 p.m. PDT -- John Lackey (7-5, 3.88) vs. Brian Matusz (1-1, 7.04); Sunday, 10:30 a.m. PDT -- Sean O'Sullivan (3-1, 5.12) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (7-12, 5.43); Monday, 4 p.m. PDT -- Ervin Santana (5-6, 6.38) vs. David Hernandez (4-4, 3.81).

Update: The Angels open a 10-game trip against a Baltimore team that has lost seven of 10. The Angels are 24 games above .500; the Orioles are 24 1/2 games back in the AL East. The Angels' potent offense has helped Weaver go 5-1 in his last nine starts despite a 6.25 earned-run average. He did strike out a career-high 11 in each of his last two outings. Tillman, one of four rookies in the Orioles' rotation, will be making his third career start in search of his first win. The 21-year-old from Fountain Valley High held Toronto to two runs and four hits in 6 2/3 innings his last time out.

-- Kevin Baxter

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