Buckeye grad making huge impact for Angels

Kole Calhoun grew up watching Arizona Diamondbacks players trot around Chase Field. June 17-18, Calhoun was the one running around the ballpark in downtown Phoenix, this time playing against his childhood team.

A 2006 graduate of Buckeye Union High School, Calhoun is in his fourth season playing Major League Baseball for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Last week, he made his first trip to Phoenix for a regular season game against the Dbacks.

“It was cool,” Calhoun said. “It’s surreal having been a fan of the Diamondbacks and being at this stadium so much, and now I’m playing on the field. It was awesome.”

Technically, it wasn’t the first time Calhoun had played on that field. Following his senior year of high school, he was selected to participate for Class 4A in an all-star game against Class 5A.

“I pitched an inning and had one at-bat, a walk,” Calhoun said.

Last week’s pair of games had much more significance than a high school exhibition contest, as Calhoun has taken off with the Angels, cementing his position into their everyday starting lineup over the past three seasons. Calhoun was first called up in 2012, but the trip was more or less a cup of coffee. In 21 games, he had just 23 at bats, collecting four hits.

“I think in ’12 I got a taste, then that spring [2013] I tried to do way too much, tried to make the team out of spring, and also hurt my hand,” Calhoun said.

It wasn’t until July 2013 that Calhoun got called back up, but when he did, his impact was tremendous. Calhoun got into 58 games, starting most of those, and hit .282 with eight home runs and 32 RBI.

“When I came back, you can only control so much, and once I kind of realized that and went out and played, was just myself and not trying to be anybody else, things kind of took off and I had some success, got a lot more opportunities,” Calhoun said.

Starting 2014, Calhoun was the team’s leadoff hitter and right fielder. He had a hot start before an ankle injury landed him on the DL, but upon his return, he didn’t miss a beat.

“I think any time you get an injury, some kind of setback and the game gets taken away from you for a little bit of time, I think it drives that passion to get back on the field and come back even stronger,” Calhoun said. “You try to push through your rehab and hopefully heal everything, but you don’t want to rush getting back. Once I got back and got back in the swing of things, things kind of took off and picked right back up where they left off.”

Calhoun finished 2014 batting .272 with 17 home runs and 58 RBI. He also had 31 doubles and scored 90 runs. Add to that some incredible defensive plays and Calhoun has become a household name in Anaheim. He even got his own bobblehead, which was given to fans who attended the Angels’ home game against Oakland June 12. The bobblehead depicts Calhoun jumping on top of the right field wall at Boston’s Fenway Park to rob a home run last August. To top it off, Calhoun made his bobblehead night even more memorable when he had two hits and three RBI, including an eighth-inning home run that broke a tie and wound up being the difference in a 5-4 Angels’ win.

“That was a really fun night, a lot of people came out for that one,” Calhoun said. “It was cool. To get a bobblehead and see yourself as a bobblehead is pretty awesome. Having a good game that night, it was a really good experience, one of my favorite games. I’ll remember that one for a while.”

Fan support

Calhoun has played lots of baseball in the Valley during spring training, but playing at Chase Field last week was the first time he played in a game that meant something. Calhoun went 2 for 4 in the June 17 game, and got a loud ovation from the fans that came to watch him play.

“There were a bunch of friends and family that kind of trickled in, a bunch of older friends, people from Buckeye that came to the game,” Calhoun said. “There were a lot of people.”

The next day, Calhoun walked twice but was hitless in his other three at bats. One of the fans in attendance was Greg Mendoza, Buckeye’s head baseball coach when Calhoun played there.

“It’s really neat,” Mendoza said of watching Calhoun play. “That sounds kind of simple, but it’s just really neat. We’re not on a high school baseball field, we’re on a major league baseball field and there’s [someone] you know.

“I don’t want to say you’re like a parent, but you’re kind of like a parent who’s only concerned about that one player.”

Mendoza, who was wearing a Calhoun shirt-jersey, said he follows Calhoun constantly on his phone, checking in to watch his at bats and see what he does. Last October, when the Angels made the playoffs, he went out for a game.

“That was the first time I saw him play professionally,” Mendoza said. “That was just amazing, the fans love him over there.”

Groups of people have started their own fan clubs in right field. Last year, the Cal-hooligans started, and this year there’s a group that holds up letters spelling Calzone.

“They get pretty crazy out there in right field,” Calhoun said. “It’s been pretty cool. Going out and playing and getting people to back you, it’s pretty fun.”

It’s no surprise fans have taken to Calhoun, especially considering how he plays the game. He’s only 5-10, but hits the ball as hard as anyone, has the speed to steal bases and makes tremendous defensive plays in right field, sacrificing his body to make diving catch after diving catch.

“It’s a part of the game that’s preached with the Angels, we come up through the minor leagues and know if you can’t play defense, you’re not really going to get a shot,” Calhoun said. “We work hard on it.”

Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia praised Calhoun’s defense, saying he’s been a good outfielder since the time he’s been in the organization.

“There aren’t many right fielders in our league that can stop the first to third like he can, he’s got a really good arm, charges the ball well,” Scioscia said. “All the things that are going to show up with what you want a right fielder to do are part of his game.”

Batting lineup

Offensively, Calhoun is batting .264 this season, through Sunday’s game, belting six home runs and driving in 32 runs. He’s jumped around the lineup, starting in the leadoff spot before moving to cleanup for a while. He’s currently hitting in the two-hole.

“We reworked some things in our lineup just to try to set the table better for Mike [Trout] and Albert [Pujols] and David [Freese],” Scioscia said. “I think we want to keep Kole in front of Mike because Kole has the ability to drive the ball and had a good year in front of Mike last year, so he fits in the No. 2 hole right now. But Kole is multidimensional. I think his versatility has really been important to us and whether he’s hitting 1, 2, 4 or 5, he’s important to us.”

Calhoun said he doesn’t make adjustments based on where he’s hitting in the lineup.

“I just try to keep my same approach going up to the plate, not try to change too many things depending on where I’m hitting,” Calhoun said. “My No. 1 goal is to get on base any way I can. If I’m getting on base, we’ve got opportunities to score. That’s really all I’m focusing on.”

Calhoun’s rise to stardom has gained him notoriety at his alma mater. Last October, Calhoun rode in the lead car for Buckeye’s homecoming parade with his wife, Jennifer, who is also a Buckeye grad. He also goes back to Buckeye for the alumni baseball game that coach Danny Rodriguez puts on every year.

“It’s been awesome,” Calhoun said. “There’s a big following, everybody is definitely still supporting me. It’s cool. Any chance I get to go back and make an appearance, say hi, keep those relationships strong, I try to take advantage of that.”

Calhoun lives in Chandler during the offseason, including spring training, as the Angels train in nearby Tempe. He didn’t have much time to spend at home while the Angels were playing the Diamondbacks because it was a short series, but that’s part of the grind of being in the major leagues.

“If you can’t get up for games here, something’s wrong with you,” Calhoun said. “But it is a grind, every day you’re coming to the ballpark and good game, bad game the night before, you’ve got to strap on your shoes and go out and play again. You’ve just got to take it day by day. I think if you look at it as a whole 162 games you’d kind of go a little crazy, but you take it day by day, look back at the end of the season and I think you’d be happy with where you’re at.”

.500 Team

As of Sunday, the Angels were 35-35, trailing the American League West division leading Houston Astros by 5.5 games. The Angels had the best record in the AL last season, but their playoff run was cut short by the Kansas City Royals. Still, Calhoun said the experience was unreal.

“Definitely nothing like I’ve ever played in before, fans were crazy, it’s so loud, packed house, it was unbelievable,” Calhoun said. “We had such a great team, it ended a lot quicker than what we wanted to, but the experience was awesome and it kind of drives that passion again to get back.”

Calhoun believes this year’s team can get back to the playoffs, but they’ve just got to take it day by day, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of season still ahead of us,” he said. “I think we’re doing all the right things, the pitchers are throwing the ball well, offense is swinging it and hopefully we’ll put up a little bit more runs than they do and get some W’s. We play in a tough division, so it’s going to take beating guys in our division to get there.”

If Calhoun continues to produce like he has over the past three years, the Angels could very well find themselves back in the postseason. Calhoun might look like the unlikeliest of people to lead an MLB team, but if you ask Mendoza, he’s the most likely.

“I don’t think anything’s changed,” Mendoza said when asked about the difference between Calhoun in high school and Calhoun now. “He’s a gritty, hard-nosed player who everybody who thought they knew baseball always thought he overachieved, and I don’t think he has overachieved, I think he’s done everything that he’s capable of doing and he’s done it at every level, he’s never stopped. He’s always been kind of criticized because of his lack of height and body type, but he’s a baseball player. He’ll always be a baseball player.”

Casey Pritchard can be reached by email at cpritchard@westvalleyview.com. Follow on Twitter @CaseyonSports and Instagram @ViewSports.