ANAHEIM -- Angels manager Mike Scioscia wanted to make sure Erick Aybar's recent two-week stint on the disabled list was a productive one. So, he gave his shortstop a very specific homework assignment: watch video of 2009.
That was the year that Aybar posted career highs in batting average (.312), on-base percentage (.353) and slugging (.423). But the purpose wasn't to lift Aybar's spirits, per se. It was to help him mimic the more-simplistic stride the switch-hitter used to have from the left side of the plate.
Aybar watched, practiced it, then applied it to games upon being activated.
Now, he says, "It's like night and day. I feel like a different hitter."
The numbers back that up. Since being activated on Aug. 6, Aybar has hit .400, notching 14 hits in 35 at-bats, hitting a couple of homers and looking a lot more like the spark plug Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto envisioned when he locked Aybar up to a four-year extension in mid-April.
With his nine-game surge, Aybar has raised his batting average from .257 to .271 heading into Thursday's series opener against the Rays. As recently as May 19, it was below .200.
"His swing, his mechanics are much more in line with what he was doing in '09 than anything he's done the last couple years," Scioscia said. "Sometimes you're not going to square balls up at the plate and I think at times hitters tinker. He had some success with the little toe-tap, but as time went on it bred more inconsistencies into his swing than things it fixed."
For some reason -- he's not sure why -- Aybar fell into the habit of an additional toe-tap in his stride while hitting from the left side of the plate the past few years. Former hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was working on it with him earlier in the season, and as time went on and struggles continued, Aybar became increasingly more open to change.
He believes reliving his 2009 days helped him finally make the change.
"It helped a lot," Aybar said in Spanish. "Since then, I've just kept feeling better and better each day, and you're seeing the results."
Downs tosses sim game, expected back Saturday
ANAHEIM -- Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto and skipper Mike Scioscia stood behind the cage early Thursday afternoon, watching intently as lefty reliever Scott Downs fired pitches to Bobby Wilson, Peter Bourjos and Mark Trumbo.
It was about as big as a 20-pitch simulated game can get.
Downs is that valuable to the turnaround of a struggling Angels bullpen. And the news that Downs is now expected to be activated by Saturday -- barring unforeseen setbacks -- is the best development this bullpen has had in weeks.
"I feel comfortable enough where I can go out there, pitch and help the team win," said Downs, out with a strained left shoulder since July 27.
"Scott did very well," Scioscia added. "The stuff he showed out there in the sim game is definitely what he needs to pitch with in the Major Leagues. We're going to see how he comes out of it today and tomorrow, and then hopefully activate him on Saturday."
Downs, who hadn't had any shoulder issues since college, also had one of these sim games Tuesday, but it was more to get a feel for his pitches and, admittedly, get over some of the apprehensions that would come with an injury like his.
He tried to treat Thursday as real as possible, warming up in the bullpen just like he would before checking into the game, then stepping onto the field and attacking hitters with his full repertoire.
"It felt good," Downs said. "Last time, I started fatiguing towards the end of it because I had thrown more than normal. This time I kept it more at game speed and it was all good."
Downs gave up nine earned runs in five innings to start the second half -- struggles he did not attribute to the shoulder issue that wound up landing him on the disabled list -- but still has a 2.57 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP in a season that has seen him serve as a crucial lefty complement to righty Ernesto Frieri in the back end of the bullpen.
Since the All-Star break, the Angels bullpen -- also missing Jordan Walden -- sports by far the highest ERA in the Majors at 6.31. The Brewers follow with a 5.63 mark.
Downs should help that greatly if he returns to form. But, he insists, "There's no one guy who's going to make this team better. We're a team, and I think that's the main thing. That's what we focus on. I don't think there's one hitter that's going to carry us, there's not one pitcher that's going to carry us. We're going to do it all together."
Walden, nursing injuries to his neck and right biceps since July 8, made his third rehab appearance for Triple-A Salt Lake on Thursday, needing only nine pitches to record his second consecutive 1-2-3 inning.
Asked pregame if this could be Walden's final step before rejoining the bullpen, Scioscia said: "We'll see. I think with Jordan it definitely is going to be contingent on the evaluation of his outing and where he is."
Santana making strides with retooled slider
ANAHEIM -- So, what made Ervin Santana so much more effective against the Indians on Wednesday night? Part of the reason -- in addition to the five-run cushion, the light-hitting offense he faced and the fact he got first-pitch strikes on 16 of 25 hitters -- was his slider.
That pitch is appreciably slower these days, and that's a good thing. While pitching seven innings of one-run ball in his most recent outing, Santana's average slider velocity was 81.7 mph. His previous start against the Mariners, it was 81.3. Prior to that, though, it's been mostly at 83-85 mph this season.
That subtle dip in velocity has seemingly given the pitch more break and better results.
On Wednesday night, only one Indians hitter -- Asdrubal Cabrera in the fourth -- reached base against Santana's slider. He threw it 40.4 percent of the time, representing the highest rate since June 23, while using it to record a third of his outs and notch three of his four strikeouts.
Indians manager Manny Acta noted it postgame as the main reason why Santana had success, and Angels skipper Mike Scioscia believes it's a pitch Santana is throwing much better lately.
"As he's found his release point with his slider, it's created more depth in the pitch, whereas earlier it was horizontal when he wasn't able to find his release point," Scioscia said. "That is a power breaking ball. He's thrown that thing anywhere from 81 to 85 mph. That's a power breaking ball, and it has depth. And you're starting to see some of those ugly swings that we haven't seen for a long time."
Umpire Greg Gibson, who took a Torii Hunter cleat to the side of the face and was forced to leave Wednesday's game, told TMZ.com he sustained a broken nose in addition to the gash near his left eye, but suffered no head trauma.
Gibson didn't hold a grudge against Hunter, calling him "one of the princes of the game." Gibson will have an eye exam Friday morning and hopes to return soon after that, TMZ reported.
Angels reliever Kevin Jepsen, and his signature breakfast quesadilla, won him the Angels Cooking Challenge on Thursday, beating out Mark Trumbo, Ernesto Frieri, Peter Bourjos and LaTroy Hawkins. Jepsen will get $5,000 towards a charity of his choice (he chose the Nick Adenhart Foundation) and his dish will temporarily be on the menu at the ESPN Zone in Downtown Disney during football season. Every dollar from the purchase of that dish goes towards the Angels Baseball Foundation.
As part of the weeklong celebration of the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Series, the Angels invited Scott Spiezio to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Thursday's game against the Rays. Troy Glaus is scheduled to do the honors on Friday.
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.