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Kaleb Cowart embraces two-way role, hits grand slam in first spring game for Angels

Kaleb Cowart embraces two-way role, hits grand slam in first spring game for Angels
Kaleb Cowart, right, gets high-fives from his Angels teammates after hitting a grand slam against the Chicago White Sox on Monday. (Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

It had only been four or five hours since Angels utility man Kaleb Cowart sweated through a bullpen session at Tempe Diablo Stadium, but that did not stop him from joining the lineup Monday for a game at Camelback Ranch.

Such is life for the Angels’ recently minted two-way player. He must carefully peruse the team’s schedule to figure out whether he’s working out with pitchers or hitters on any particular day. He must occasionally throw bullpen sessions on days when he’s expected to hit and play the field.

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In the end, Cowart, the Angels’ first-round pick of the 2010 draft, must find a way to add value to his team.

The doubled workload has not been overwhelming. Cowart even made it seem routine when he stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and the score tied 2-2 against the Chicago White Sox. He stood relaxed in the left-handed batter’s box, the bat resting on his shoulder as he awaited reliever Randall Delgado’s 2-1 offering in the fourth inning. When a fastball hurtled toward the middle of the plate, Cowart barreled the pitch and smacked it over the right-field bullpen for a grand slam that gave the Angels a 6-2 lead. (The game finished in a 6-6 tie.)

“I think [playing both ways] allows you to focus on both so you’re not stressed out with one constantly,” Cowart said. “I think it’s a positive thing.”

The moment provided some relief for Cowart. He began training as a pitcher during the offseason because he’d spent the last four years of his professional career struggling to hit major league pitching. His toiling at the plate — he had a .293 on-base percentage, a 30% strikeout rate and only six home runs in 162 games — at times made it hard to justify his presence on the 25-man roster. He had no minor league options remaining on his contract either, further complicating his future with the team that decided to draft him as an infielder in spite of his elite ratings as a pitcher.

So the Angels came up with a solution, one they also visited under previous general manager Jerry Dipoto: spend the 2019 season developing Cowart as a pitcher, and allow him to continue to hit and provide Gold Glove-caliber defense on other days. It’s a “super, super utility” role, Cowart said.

“You’re still playing baseball, so maybe it’s a good thing,” Cowart said. “Maybe it’s like you’re a kid again. … This is a kids’ game and it’s a fun game, and we need to embrace that.”

Cowart almost played this role for a different team. The Angels had to retrieve him from the Detroit Tigers, who claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners, who claimed him off waivers from the Angels in December, only a few months after Cowart indicated to team officials that he wanted to improve his versatility by returning to the mound.

After a whirlwind few months, Cowart returned to Angels camp last week and joined triple-A teammate Jared Walsh and minor leaguers Bo Way and William English in the Angels’ experiment with two-way players.

Cowart has not yet appeared in an official game as a pitcher, though he did throw about 20 pitches in a B game on a Tempe Diablo minor league field on Saturday. Monday was his first game of the spring.

It might be too early to draw conclusions, but already the experiment has paid dividends.

“He’s a good-hitting pitcher,” manager Brad Ausmus joked.

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