A month ago, Angels second baseman Johnny Giavotella was unable to see straight, much less play baseball.
He woke up the morning of Aug. 21 with double- and cross-eyed vision, sending him on a desperate search for an explanation and a remedy. He endured an anxious few weeks until doctors identified the cause: fourth cranial nerve palsy, which weakens or paralyzes a small muscle behind the eye and affects muscle movements.
“I was in bad shape the first week or two after this incident happened,” Giavotella said Monday. “So for me to be in this position now is pretty incredible.”
Giavotella, who spent time at the Angels’ instructional league facility in Arizona after his vision cleared and was reinstated from the disabled list Friday, has been in the middle of the Angels’ improbable comeback from near-oblivion to a breath away from a playoff spot.
On Monday he lined a double to center field in the second inning, scored a run, and made several fine, diving defensive plays in the Angels’ 5-4 victory over the Oakland Athletics at Anaheim. That neatly followed his baserunning feat Sunday against the Seattle Mariners, when he stretched a line-drive single into a double in the eighth inning and eventually scored the winning run.
“I saw the guy kind of being lackadaisical in center field and took the extra base,” he said of Brad Miller. “The gamble paid off, fortunately for me, because if I had been thrown out there would have been a lot of people mad at me in this clubhouse.”
It’s tough to be angry at Giavotella, who seems to throw every bit of his 5-foot-8, 185-pound body into every at-bat and fielding chance. In four games back in the lineup he’s five for 11 with two doubles, two triples and three runs batted in, making him as much of a catalyst and inspiration to his teammates as he was before his scare. Maybe even more.
“He brings some intensity that not a lot of guys have, and that’s been huge for us, especially in that series against Seattle,” right fielder Kole Calhoun said of Giavotella’s return last week. “It was a really scary thing that he had, for anybody, not even in sports but in life, not being able to have your vision. Getting him back healthy and able to play with us through this stretch run is big.”
The Angels remained half a game behind Houston for the second American League wild-card berth and moved two games behind Texas for the West lead. They’ve won six consecutive games, nine of 11 and 13 of 18, a surprising reversal of the late-August swoon that had them looking dead.
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Giavotella said, laughing. “I think we’ve always felt like we were good enough to make the playoffs. And now we’re in the thick of things and we can win out and hopefully clinch that second wild-card spot.”
There was no way to know a month ago if he’d be back at all, let alone back to play in meaningful games. Recovery came slowly and was aided by a visit from his mother and her home cooking. He said doctors have told him they’re reasonably certain his eye problem won’t recur, and he’s happy to put it behind him.
“It was fun just going down to Arizona and playing in those games, just playing the game of baseball that I love so much and was taken from me for a month,” he said. “That was so difficult. Just for me to get back playing ball was a big step for me.
“This is incredibly fun. We know how much every game means to us as far as the standings are concerned. We’re playing good baseball right now. It’s exciting to see what the season holds for us.”
Like Calhoun, Angels Manager Mike Scioscia called Giavotella a spark plug, but Scioscia added a note of caution. “You need more than a spark plug to get an engine to run,” Scioscia said.
True enough. But without Giavotella’s spark, the Angels’ playoff hopes might have flickered out.
“Being healthy, it feels great,” Giavotella said. “I’m looking forward to seeing where this team goes.”
The best part is that whatever unfolds, he will be able to see it clearly.