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Scioscia leads race for top AL skipper

Scioscia leads race for top AL skipper

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When an offense struggles, it's the manager's prerogative to shuffle the lineup. When a pesky left-handed hitter steps to the plate against a right-handed pitcher late in a game, it's the manager's right to call a lefty out of the bullpen. The manager calls bunts, hit-and-runs and pitchouts.

He sets the tone. He sets the pace.

And when life and the game of baseball intersect in tragedy, it's the manager's duty to keep his team together and put it all into perspective.

The Angels' Mike Scioscia is not the favorite to win the American League Manager of The Year Award solely because his team battled through a series of injuries to win the AL West for the third time in a row. He's the front-runner because he honored the memory of fallen pitcher Nick Adenhart with respect and inspired play from his club all season.

"He's with us," said Scioscia, who was named the AL's top manager in 2002. "We've played the whole year with heavy hearts. But it was never about us, and it isn't about us. It's all about supporting Nick's family in any small way, and we're going to bring Nick's memory forward. The fact we can support that family in some way gives us a sense of peace."

Adenhart, who was killed in a car crash along with companions Courtney Stewart and Henry Pearson on April 9, was remembered when the Angels clinched the division title with an impromptu celebration in front of his image on the outfield wall at Angel Stadium.

The gesture surprised no one.

"Just like [Scioscia] said, [Adenhart's] been with us every step of the way this season, and he'll continue to stay with us throughout the playoffs and beyond," reliever Kevin Jepsen said at the end of the regular season. "We just wanted to let him know he's with us."

The players followed their manager's lead from the start, and the result was a stellar 97-65 record during the regular season. The Angels swept the Red Sox in the AL Division Series and were defeated in the ALCS by the eventual World Series champion Yankees.

The Angels have gone to the postseason six times during Scioscia's 10 years at the helm.

However, playoff performances do not factor in the annual award, because the ballots were submitted prior to the start of the postseason.

On the field, Scioscia's Angels overcame injuries to pitchers John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana. Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero also spent time on the disabled list. Scot Shields missed the final part of the season, and Kelvim Escobar pitched in one game all year. Overall, the Angels used 14 starting pitchers in 2009. The only starter who didn't miss a turn was Jered Weaver.

Off the field, Scioscia led by example.

THE FAVORITE

Scioscia: Known for his aggressive style with baserunners, his focus on player matchups and leadership, Scioscia put up what might be the best campaign of his career in 2009. In addition to dealing with the normal ups and downs of a regular season, he managed his players through the emotional roller-coaster ride that followed the death of Adenhart.

THE CONTENDERS

Ron Gardenhire, Twins: As did Scioscia, Gardenhire arguably had the best year of his managerial career in 2009. It was definitely one of the most eventful.

The club was without All-Star catcher Joe Mauer for the entire month of April, and by the middle of August, the Twins had lost three of the starters who began the year in their rotation. Third baseman Joe Crede was limited to just 90 games before season-ending back surgery, and with three weeks remaining in the season, Gardenhire lost slugger Justin Morneau with a stress fracture in his lower back.

Rookies were a mainstay in the rotation down the stretch, yet Gardenhire's Twins rallied with a fantastic September and October to move past the Tigers in the race for the AL Central crown to qualify for the playoffs.

Ron Washington, Rangers: The fact that Washington is Scioscia's pick for this award means something. The Rangers were not expected to contend this season, but improved pitching and Washington's leadership kept them in the race for a postseason spot until the final week of the season.

Washington's no-nonsense approach, combined with his ability to let his players police themselves, served the Rangers well in 2009. The former third-base coach has come into his own as a manager, earning the respect of his clubhouse and peers across the league.

Making Elvis Andrus his everyday shortstop and Frank Francisco his closer, along with placing his faith in Scott Feldman as a starter, were among the many moves that kept the Rangers near the top of the standings all season. But late-season injuries to Michael Young and Josh Hamilton, combined with inconsistent pitching, proved to be his team's downfall.

THE DARK HORSES

Don Wakamatsu, Mariners: In his first year in Seattle, Wakamatsu brought a winning attitude and changed the culture in the clubhouse following the Mariners' 101-loss season in 2008. The Mariners made waves in the first half of the season but struggled in the second half and finished in third in the AL West.

Joe Girardi, Yankees: If the award was given to the skipper of the World Series champion, Girardi would have another piece of hardware to add to his mantel. But it's not. The skipper of the best team with the highest payroll is not often a favorite for the award, but Girardi should be given credit for molding his star-studded roster into a team and keeping his club focused despite the early-season distractions surrounding Alex Rodriguez. In the postseason, Girardi's strategies led to another World Series title, the 27th in franchise history.

Jesse Sanchez 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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