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Morales no stranger to pressure

Morales no stranger to pressure

ANAHEIM -- It was just one at-bat, but millions of eyes were focused on Kendry Morales one year ago. It's not as if this was unfamiliar territory.

Morales grew up as a teenager among men in intense international competition, trying to please a boss who was the leader of the country, a powerful man caring deeply about his baseball team.

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Playing for Fidel Castro in a big game was like running through a fire.

No wonder Morales grins whenever someone asks him about pressure.

"I don't feel pressure," Morales said. "I just focus on doing my job."

In that at-bat in Game 4 of the 2008 American League Division Series at Fenway Park, Morales gave a preview of coming attractions.

With a 2-2 count as a pinch-hitter, Morales lashed a delivery by Red Sox right-hander Justin Masterson off Fenway Park's Green Monster in left-center to lead off the ninth inning.

Morales -- who was 2-for-4 in the series after going 1-for-9 in the 2007 ALDS -- was replaced in the 2-2 game by pinch-runner Reggie Willits. Willits was tagged out at third base on an unsuccessful squeeze attempt by Erick Aybar that snuffed the Angels' final offensive threat of the 2008 season.

The Red Sox prevailed with a run in the bottom of the ninth, but Morales had made a mark.

Angels manager Mike Scioscia saw something in that at-bat that spoke volumes about Morales, who would become his new first baseman six months later after Mark Teixeira chose Yankees pinstripes -- and greenbacks -- over Angels colors.

"That one at-bat is an indication of his talent, first of all," Scioscia recalled. "Adjustments were made with two strikes to cut down his swing. He went up the middle, to left-center.

"A lot of his growth as a hitter is understanding the need -- and his ability -- to use the whole field. We've seen that."

Time and again.

In his first full season as a Major Leaguer, Morales emerged this season as one of the game's premier sluggers, finishing with 34 homers, 107 RBIs and a .306 average.

Going far beyond the 25 homers and 80 RBIs he'd established as spring goals, his slugging percentage is the second highest in the league behind the great Joe Mauer. Only two players delivered more extra-base hits.

Having accepted that challenge, Morales merely was doing what he's always done: rise to the occasion when it counted.

Scott Kazmir was acquired by the Angels from the Rays on Aug. 28, the day Morales had two homers, two doubles, one single and six RBIs.

Kazmir recalled Morales, having just turned 18, pitching the decisive game of a Junior Pan American Championships tournament in Cuba against his Team USA in 2001.

A U.S. outfit that had been averaging more than 10 runs a game was held to two in a one-run victory, with Morales going the distance.

"That was fun," Morales said, grinning.

A year later, Morales was Rookie of the Year in Cuban baseball, and two years after that, he was on a boat bound for a new land of opportunity. This journey, after 12 unsuccessful efforts, landed him on the shores of South Florida.

Morales was signed six months later, in December 2004, by the Angels after establishing residency in the Dominican Republic.

Morales hammered the ball at every Minor League stop, hitting .329 in 304 games with 54 homers and 224 RBIs.

With periodical trials in Anaheim, Morales struggled to find a groove, hitting .249 with 12 homers and 45 RBIs in 377 at-bats. But he did demonstrate his talent in 2007 during one fairly extended opportunity, finishing the season at .294 with a .479 slugging percentage.

When Teixeira departed, Morales was handed first base -- and he was ready.

"I was hoping that with or without the signing of Teixeira," Morales said, "that I was going to win a job in the big leagues."

Morales had a solid first half and then went off after the All-Star break, claiming the AL Player of the Month Award for August, when he drove in 33 runs in 28 games with 10 homers, batting .385. Slugging percentage: .734.

Angels center fielder Torii Hunter gives Bobby Abreu -- an acknowledged master of the craft inside the game -- major credit for enhancing Morales' understanding of the finer points of hitting.

"Bobby has been on Kendry for a while," Hunter said. "I've heard some shouting matches between them two. He's been trying to help him work on some things."

Abreu's lectures have focused on the need to let the pitcher come to you -- don't go after him.

"Morales has been hitting much better with runners in scoring position," Abreu said. "Early in the season, he was swinging at everything, trying to do too much in those situations. Now, he's got an idea what he's doing at the plate. He's making good decisions on which pitches to go after.

"That's one of the things that's going to help us in the playoffs. Understanding situations is so important. Don't try to do too much. Do what you're capable of doing."

Hunter sees no reason why Morales won't continue to get better.

"Since April, it's been night and day," Hunter said. "He learns quick, and that's what's going to make him a superstar."

Scioscia threw Morales' hat into the AL MVP derby after he was named the league's Player of the Month for April.

"They might not vote for him, because it's his first full year and he's not a big name yet," Hunter said. "I definitely think he should [be considered].

"Look at his numbers, look where he plays and where he's batting in the lineup. Guys like Teixeira are batting third, and he has [Alex Rodriguez] and everyone hitting around him. And he's in a bigger market.

"But just to get consideration is special."

From the manager's point of view, Morales needs to just keep doing what he's been doing.

"You want guys to play with a relaxed sense of urgency," Scioscia said.

Morales learned how to do that years ago, with Castro watching.

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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