Morales' return a refreshing sight for Halos

Morales' return a refreshing sight for Halos

Morales' return a refreshing sight for Halos
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Kendrys Morales' journey towards once again being a premier slugger is really only just beginning. He still needs to adjust to Major League pitching, still needs to test his now-healthy left ankle through the rigors of a season and still needs to see how his body holds up while playing every day.

The most important thing is that now -- finally -- that journey has truly begun.

On Thursday afternoon, nearly 22 months since a home-run celebration turned into a freak injury, Morales made his return to the Angels' starting lineup, batting sixth while serving as the designated hitter against a split-squad Royals team at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

The most positive sign wasn't that he singled twice in three plate appearances. Or even that he successfully motored around the infield and safely slid into third base.

It's that he was there, on the field in a big league game and playing with his teammates once again.

Finally.

"I had been watching them from home for a long time," Morales said in Spanish. "Today, I was finally able to put my stamp on the field, and it felt pretty good."

Sure, it was only Spring Training. And, yes, as manager Mike Scioscia was quick to point out, "We're going to be excited if it's April 6 that he's in the lineup." But getting in a Cactus League game is another example of how this spring is totally different from that of 2011 -- when Morales had just one day of pain-free running, never appeared in a game of any kind and eventually underwent a second surgery on his troublesome leg.

"He looks good," Morales' good friend, shortstop Erick Aybar, said in Spanish. "He looks happy now that he's with us. Besides, Morales messes around more than anybody on the bench. Now that he's in the lineup, maybe he'll leave us alone a little bit."

Morales' first plate appearance since May 29, 2010, provided the most positive sign of all.

While facing lefty Danny Duffy and batting from the right side -- the side that would be the biggest test for his left ankle -- the 28-year-old switch-hitter singled to right field, then later sprinted from first to third on a left-field double by Bobby Abreu and slid in safely.

That 180-foot run, Morales agreed, was his biggest accomplishment of the afternoon.

"I think so," he said. "I was able to demonstrate that I would be 100 percent to play. Batting, it's just a matter of getting my timing back."

Morales popped out to first base in his second at-bat, then -- while batting from the left side against former Angels righty Sean O'Sullivan -- singled to center field before being forced out at second base to finish his day 2-for-3.

Scioscia called Morales' first game back "terrific," but also "what we expected."

"That's what he's looked like in his rehab appearances down in the camp games on the Minor League side," Scioscia said after his club's 7-4 win. "He's running well, the secondary leads were great, he went first to third, slid a couple of times. There's some positives today. And at the plate, he's still searching for some timing, but he was able to get a couple hits."

Morales, who got somewhat of a feel for game speed while playing in three Minor League games recently, estimated that it would only take 5-6 games for him to get his timing back at the plate. And Angels ace Jered Weaver agreed.

"He doesn't need much time to see live pitches," said Weaver, who has played with Morales since High A ball. "He's one of those guys that's see-ball, hit-ball."

Before shattering his lower leg while stomping on home plate to celebrate a walk-off grand slam, Morales was one of the game's premier first basemen, finishing fifth in American League Most Valuable Player voting during an '09 season in which he batted .306 with 34 homers.

Now, the Angels are hoping Morales can eventually work himself back to be a suitable cleanup hitter behind their new first baseman, Albert Pujols.

"The lineup with him is different," Pujols said. "Let's see how it goes. We just wish him good health."

Morales will play again on Friday, making the trip to Goodyear, Ariz., to face the Indians in the tail-end of a day-night split-squad.

Ever since getting the ankle cleaned out a second time last May, Morales has hit all of his targets. He hit off a tee and progressively jogged on an anti-gravity treadmill while spending his entire offseason in Arizona. He ramped up his baseball activities in early January. He started running around the bases a couple weeks ago. And, now, he's appearing in Cactus League games.

The next target: Opening Day.

"I've had two years out of the Angels lineup, and I think it's going to be very important for me to be in the Opening Day lineup," Morales said. "Last year, I couldn't be there, so I'm going to feel pretty good starting Opening Day with the club."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.