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Kragthorpe: L.A. Angels soaring, with help of ex-Salt Lake Bees

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Kurt Kragthorpe

By Kurt Kragthorpe

Tribune Columnist

First published Jul 19 2014 12:36PM
Updated Jul 19, 2014 11:33PM

Keith Johnson lost, lost and won as Friday night turned into Saturday morning.

It all added up to a victory for the Salt Lake Bees manager, who’s enduring a rough season in his own dugout while deserving some credit for the Los Angeles Angels’ recent surge.

Johnson’s name is attached to the Bees’ 41-60 record, but his staff’s fingerprints are all over the Angels’ 58-37 mark. And their paychecks are signed in Anaheim.

"The fact of the matter is regardless of what we do down here," Johnson said, "if they don’t win up there, it’s all for naught."

The Angels’ success enables him to absorb the Bees’ losses, not that he enjoys them. Nobody who’s as competitive as Johnson could be having much fun this season at Smith’s Ballpark, where the Bees lost 7-6 to Las Vegas on Friday.

In the process, the Angels were completing a trade for All-Star relief pitcher Huston Street, sending four minor leaguers — including Bees second baseman Taylor Lindsey, the organization’s No. 2-ranked prospect — to San Diego. That further weakens Salt Lake’s roster, during a season when the Angels continually have plucked players from the Bees.

That’s the rewarding part for Johnson, though. And just to validate his former manager’s work, Efren Navarro grabbed a bat in the 16th inning early Saturday morning at Angel Stadium and delivered a game-winning, pinch-hit double as the Angels topped Seattle 3-2 in their first game since the All-Star break.

This is how baseball math works: The Bees lost, the Padres found value in Lindsey, Navarro came through and Johnson could consider the night a victory.

The Angels’ 27-9 record since early June is the best in the big leagues, and former Salt Lake players have contributed significantly to the climb. The likes of Erick Aybar and Howie Kendrick predate Johnson’s work, and nobody really can take credit for Mike Trout. Yet players such as ex-University of Utah star C.J Cron, Kole Calhoun and Navarro were influenced by Johnson and hitting coach Francisco Matos, and the pitching staff is loaded with ex-Bees who learned from pitching coach Erik Bennett.

Calhoun is a success story, having solidified himself as the Angels’ leadoff hitter, with surprising power.

Cron’s 0-for-6 night vs. Seattle lowered his average to .269, and the Angels optioned him to Salt Lake on Saturday to make room for Street on the roster.

Yet Cron’s combined 15 home runs for the Bees and Angels already have topped his total at Double-A Arkansas last season.

Navarro will get some playing time at first base after Cron was sent down, and he filled in admirably as an outfielder when the Angels were desperate for help. And he just keeps hitting, whenever he plays. "They always ask us about him, and our whole staff, all three of us … believe he’s a major league player," Johnson said.

From his early years with the Bees, Bennett can take satisfaction in the remarkable rise of starting pitcher Garrett Richards and the steady work of reliever Kevin Jepsen. More recently, the likes of Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago, Cory Rasmus and Michael Morin have benefited from him.

Richards went 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA in the Angels’ surge before the break, probably deserving All-Star selection. "He’s just commanding everything this year, and he’s finally understanding his delivery and able to make subtle adjustments during the game to repeat it," Bennett said.

Shoemaker "put his work in here," Bennett said. "He got roughed up here, just like everybody does, but he learned from it and now he’s putting it together up there."

Down here, up there. The Bees are way down in the PCL standings, the Angels are nearly caught up with Oakland in the AL West.

That’s rewarding, in Salt Lake City. "That’s your job description," Bennett said. "To see that makes you feel good and know that you’re on the right track with them."

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

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