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Lyle Spencer

Torii guiding Angels, on and off the field

Torii guiding Angels, on and off the field

Torii guiding Angels, on and off the field
ANAHEIM -- About 90 minutes before the Angels' critical series finale against the surging Athletics on Thursday, Torii Hunter sat at his locker in the Angel Stadium home clubhouse and talked about the importance -- the responsibility, really -- of veteran leadership.

"They're sort of like my kids," Hunter said. "Sometimes you think these kids aren't watching, but they are. That's why as a veteran -- like an older brother or even a dad -- you've got to carry yourself the right way."

Hunter, 37, made his Major League debut for the Twins in 1997 -- 15 days after Mike Trout blew out six birthday candles in New Jersey.

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"You know Trout, [Mark] Trumbo, Peter Bourjos are watching you," Hunter said. "You might not think you're a role model, but they're watching. That's why you have to be aware of what you're doing, how you're acting and reacting."

Hunter then went out and showed all the Angels, young and old, how to respond to pressure.

Dropped from the No. 2 spot to cleanup by manager Mike Scioscia to protect Albert Pujols against smoking-hot southpaw Brett Anderson, Hunter cleaned up, all right. He smoked a seventh-inning homer to the opposite field, ending a scoreless Jered Weaver-Anderson duel, and added two singles for good measure.

The blast to right-center on Anderson's two-seam fastball rousted the Angels. When the six-run inning was over, Hunter's single having delivered the final run, the Angels exhaled and went on to finish a 6-0 triumph behind the ace, Weaver, who was back in dominant form.

"He's a great teammate," Trout, an MVP candidate at 21, said of Hunter. "He understands the game. He's been playing a long time, and he's a smart guy.

"I told him before his home run that we needed a big at-bat, maybe a base hit up the middle. He went deep and came up big for us. He's a big reason we're still in the race.

"He's playing all out at 37; that's impressive. He's 37 going on 27. He's not just a leader on the field -- he's a leader all the time."

Hunter, whose adaptability might be his greatest asset, has been deadly (.345) hitting second between Trout (MLB-high 115 runs) and Pujols. But the Angels' right fielder is no stranger to generating power when asked to do so. The man has 296 career homers and 1,127 RBIs.

"I'm a team player," Hunter said. "[Scioscia] summoned me to hit second, and I did that. Today he asked me to hit in the fourth spot. Whatever he wants, I'll do it.

"When I hit that home run, I felt great running around the bases, hitting home plate. You're trying to get that good energy and give it to teammates. I hope that's what happened."

The upshot of his shot was the return of light -- and that good energy -- to a club that had been in the dark for three nights as the A's rolled to their 10th, 11th and 12th consecutive road victories.

"Torii's got that mentality -- it's built in -- that he wants to perform in big spots," longtime lockermate Howard Kendrick said. "When he got here, he told me about Kirby Puckett and those guys in Minnesota who taught him, and now he's doing it for our younger guys, like Trout. He's always available, always there for guys -- and he's having a great year."

A .276 career hitter, Hunter stands at .309. He finished 2009 with a career-high .29933, one hit away. He thought he'd reached .300 with a fifth-inning double before getting removed from the season finale in Oakland.

His .358 on-base percentage is an improvement over his .334 career norm, but his .453 slugging percentage is down slightly from .466 lifetime.

"He's giving himself up to move me over, doing the things a two-hole hitter has to do," Trout said. "He's always looking to do what the team needs. He's not thinking about himself at all."

Hunter said he relishes this time of year, how the proximity to the postseason motivates him. The numbers back him up.

His .814 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in September is his best of any month. In October, he delivers. His .305/.370/.489 slash line in 34 postseason games is well above his regular-season output, with a .858 OPS compared to .800 in his 16 seasons.

"When it's closer to the playoffs," he said, "I go to a different level. My whole career, that's what I've wanted -- to win that championship. When you play 16 years, you want it a little more than the rest."

Hunter is too smart to make guarantees, but he does have a good feeling about where this is going.

"We'll be there,"he said. "In baseball, ain't nothing guaranteed. But we're going to get there."

How else is a leader supposed to feel?

"Torii has a knack for getting things started when they need to get started," said setup man Kevin Jepsen, "for getting things rolling when you need it. He has a way of going, 'All right, let's do this. Follow me.' He's usually right in the middle of it when we win ballgames."

Hunter's Twins and Angels are 1,105-914 in games he has played. In those victories, he has produced 208 homers and 817 RBIs. In losing games, he has 88 homers, 309 RBIs.

As Torii goes, historically, so go his teams.

"He's the perfect epitome of leadership," said Trumbo, who contributed an RBI single to the six-run seventh. "I'd definitely say he's one of the key components of what we do with his leadership on and off the field.

"He just wants to win."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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