A midseason demotion to the minor leagues proved a humbling trip for Howie Kendrick, who had nothing but time to assess what went wrong during a slow start to the first half.
He returned to the Los Angeles Angels in early July, and has been a thorn to opponents ever since – especially the New York Yankees.
Kendrick had three hits, including a home run, in a 5-4 victory over the Yankees in 11 innings Monday that left Los Angeles trailing 2-1 in the best-of-seven AL championship series.
“Getting sent down to the minors opened my eyes again. It made me hungry,” he said. “I came back with that fire again and just enjoyed the game.”
The matchup with the Yankees favors Kendrick. The second baseman is a career .426 hitter against them in the regular season, highest among active players. His homer Monday was the first by a Yankees opponent in 63 2-3 innings, including all of this postseason.
“What makes him a dangerous hitter is that he’s got bat speed. He has an idea of what he wants to do when he goes up to the plate,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We’ve tried pitching him a couple different ways. At times we’ve had success, and at times we have not. Yesterday we did not.”
The Yankees were set to start CC Sabathia on three days’ rest in Game 4 Tuesday. Angels manager Mike Scioscia has been starting Kendrick over Maicer Izturis against left-handed pitchers since Kendrick’s return from Triple-A Salt Lake.
“Howie’s hit a lot of teams,” Scioscia said. “It’s a small sample size when you’re probably talking about it right now. If this goes on for three, four, five years, it might be something to talk about. But right now it’s a small sample size to make too much out of it.”
Kendrick started two of the first three games in the ALCS, going 4 for 8 with a single, triple and home run on Monday.
“Early on in the season I just got ahead of myself. I was impatient, kind of pressing a lot,” he said. “It kind of got me away from just playing the game, having fun. I put a lot of pressure on myself, expected to do a lot more than what I should have been trying to do.”
A year ago, Kendrick stumbled through the Angels‘ four-game division series loss to the Boston Red Sox. He was 2 for 17, stranded 18 baserunners and was shaky in the field.
“Howie is a guy that has an incredible high ceiling as far as the offensive player he can be. He’s shown glimpses of it,” Scioscia said. “Going down (to the minors) took a little air out of him. He just relaxed. Got back into the rhythm he had in spring training, and he killed the ball.”
Kendrick was hitting .231 when he was sent down on June 13, and raised his average to .291 by season’s end. He set career highs in hits (109), runs (61), home runs (10) and RBI (61) in 105 games with the Angels.
He was the AL‘s second-best hitter from July 4 through the end of the regular season, batting .351 with 34 runs and 38 RBIs in 54 games.
“There’s a lot of good guys up here. I just wanted to fit in with everybody and what we were doing,” he said. “Along with that, I just had a lot of success on the way back up here. It’s definitely been fun.”
Helped by Kendrick, the Angels improved to 5-1 at home all-time in postseason games against the Yankees.
“We’re in a sense evenly matched,” he said. “They have a lot of guys that do a lot of things, and we have a lot of guys that wreak havoc, too, especially on the basepaths.”