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Conger faces stiff competition to make roster

Conger faces stiff competition to make roster

Conger faces stiff competition to make roster
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Hank Conger has swapped No. 64, his old spring jersey, for No. 16. The kid is moving on up.

It is a measure of how far he has come that, in his sixth season in the organization, he has inherited the number formerly worn by Garret Anderson, the most productive position player in franchise history.

"There are things I need to improve on," said Conger, a 23-year-old switch-hitter with Korean ancestry widely viewed as the Angels' catcher of the future. "Experience, the mental part of how I go about it, will help my physical part. I'm not getting ahead of myself."

Conger has developed a personal philosophy in part from a recommendation by Jim Lentine, a former player serving as hitting instructor for Paragon Sports International in Orange County, Calif.

"I usually work with him on my hitting in the offseason," Conger said. "We've been doing it since my junior year [at Huntington Beach High School].

"I was trying to change my mental approach, and he gave me a DVD of 'Peaceful Warrior,' an inspirational movie about a gymnast. It's all about enjoying the journey and not the ending.

"He told me to check it out and see what I think. I've been trying to take that attitude with me ever since, and I think it's made a difference."

For Conger, this means living fully moment by moment. Small, sure steps, he now realizes, can lead to big things. He knows he isn't going to be Johnny Bench or Joe Mauer tomorrow, but if he makes every day count, who knows?

He has the range of talent, intelligence and dedication to be a special player. But Conger won't despair if he's not on the Opening Day roster as he competes this spring with more seasoned catchers Jeff Mathis and Bobby Wilson.

"My goal is to get better every day," he said. "I had some good things happen to me last season, and I want to keep enjoying them as they come and moving forward."

Conger began the season at Triple-A Salt Lake determined to make the All-Star Futures Game at Angel Stadium in July. His play with the Bees led to his selection, and he made the day memorable with a three-run homer and five solid innings behind the plate, claiming the game's MVP hardware and handing it to his parents.

"That," Conger said, "was one of my best moments."

Something even better in the big scheme was coming a few months later.

In Cleveland on Sept. 15, having struck out as a pinch-hitter four days earlier in his first big league at-bat, Conger arrived to find his name on the lineup card, catching ace Jered Weaver.

Hyun Choi Conger -- "Hank" came from his dad, honoring the great Henry Aaron -- took deep breaths, met with fellow catchers Mathis, Wilson and Mike Napoli, studied film and went out to meet his challenge.

"Even I was surprised," Conger said. "I felt more comfortable than I thought I would."

Weaver held the Tribe to a ground-ball single by Shin-Soo Chin through seven dominant innings. Batting in the first inning, Conger singled sharply to left-center against Jeanmar Gomez with two strikes and two outs, driving in his first two Major League runs.

Weaver, who didn't walk a man and struck out seven, liberally praised Conger for his poised performance.

"It kind of caught me off guard when I came in and saw he was catching," Weaver said. "Before the game, I knew he was nervous -- I've been around a little bit. I told him to go out and have some fun. I said, 'If I don't like the pitch you call, I'll shake you off.'

"He did his homework. He watched tape and knew what I wanted to do. It was a great experience for him -- and me."

Conger won his first four starts, including another shutout by Ervin Santana, producing an impressive 1.91 catcher's ERA in 80 innings. A .300 hitter at Salt Lake with a .463 slugging mark, he hit .172 in 29 at-bats for the Angels.

Conger, the Angels' first-round choice in 2006, signed for $1.35 million but was stalled by wrist, shoulder, back and hamstring injuries in his first few professional seasons.

He has developed an offseason workout routine to keep the shoulder strong and flexible. After a stint in the Venezuelan Winter League, he came home and worked out with teammate Mark Trumbo under the guidance of trainer Dave Constant.

"He's been training Trum for a while, and I saw how Trum's gotten stronger and more agile," Conger said. "I came into camp last year in pretty good shape, but I feel a more solid strength this spring.

"I'm at 220 to 225 [pounds]. I usually fluctuate between 225 and 233. I already feel the change with the explosive stuff we're doing, getting out of a crouch [in catching drills]. I feel it hitting, too."

Mathis and Wilson have been helpful along the way, but competition is competition.

"The approach I took last year was really helpful for me," Conger said. "I knew it was a big year to stay healthy and get games under my belt. I'll take it the same way this year."

One experience at a time.

"Hank has definitely shown us the ability to do what a catcher needs to do," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "His next challenge is to do it for a full season -- and a career." ,P>

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

{"content":["spring_training" ] }
{"content":["spring_training" ] }