ANAHEIM, Calif.--The opener of a four-game series between the Angels and the Oakland Athletics took a bizarre turn in the ninth inning Thursday night on a play that resulted in the A's filing a formal protest.
The night then took a significant turn for the better for the Angels, who notched their 10th walk-off win of the season when Howie Kendrick hit a 10th-inning sacrifice fly for a 4-3 win in Angel Stadium.
With the score tied, 3-3, Albert Pujols opened the 10th with a walk and took third on Josh Hamilton's grounder that squirted through the middle for a single. Kendrick worked a full count before driving a ball to deep right to score Pujols and give the Angels a two-game lead over the A's in the American League West.
Erick Aybar opened the bottom of the ninth with a chopper that bounced high off the plate and down the first-base line. Oakland reliever Dan Otero fielded the ball and collided with first baseman Brandon Moss a split-second before Aybar crashed into Otero and fell to the ground.
Otero applied the tag to Aybar and held onto the ball, but home-plate umpire Greg Gibson ruled that Otero had obstructed with Aybar and awarded the Angels shortstop first base.
Oakland Manager Bob Melvin came out to question the call, and after a five-minute discussion, the call stood. Melvin then informed Gibson that he was playing the rest of the game under protest.
John McDonald, pinch-hitting for David Freese, beat out a bunt toward first for a single that snapped an 0-for-26 skid dating back to July 1 and put runners on first and second with no outs. Pinch-hitter Efren Navarro advanced both runners with a sacrifice bunt, and Gordon Beckham was walked intentionally to load the bases.
Melvin summoned left-hander Fernando Abad to face Kole Calhoun. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia could have turned to the right-handed-hitting Collin Cowgill, but he stuck with the left-handed-hitting Calhoun, who popped out to shortstop.
Right-hander Ryan Cook then came on to get Mike Trout to ground into an inning-ending fielder's choice, though third baseman Josh Donaldson's throw to second nearly pulled Alberto Callaspo off the bag.
The Angels are down to their last 29 games, with six against the A's and seven against the wild-card-contending Seattle Mariners, and the magnitude of each game -- along with the pressure of the pennant race -- will only intensify as August turns into September.
Which is why it is important for the Angels, as the catchy T-shirt slogan says, to keep calm and play baseball.
"I think the guys who are most successful in pennant races and the playoffs are the ones who don't change their game, who bring their talent onto the field and let it play," Scioscia said. "You hear the term, 'Step up,' and 'You've got to do this or that.' You just need to play baseball to your capabilities.
"It takes a certain makeup to filter out distractions and stay focused, to kind of fight that tendency to say, 'This is a big game, and I'm going to hit a ball 430 feet,' when you're only capable of hitting one 410 feet. That will lead to a negative result 100 out of 100 times."
Plenty of Angels -- Pujols, Freese, Aybar, Kendrick, Jered Weaver, Hamilton and C.J. Wilson, among others -- have experienced pennant-race and postseason pressure. Some, including Trout, Calhoun and Mike Morin, have not. As a group, they seem to have the right frame of mind.
"We play so many games, we're all professional, we know how to handle it," catcher Chris Iannetta said. "We've all been in situations where the games matter. We just go at it like it was any other game."
That might change, Iannetta admits, if the Angels are neck-and-neck with the A's entering the final week of a season that ends with three games at Oakland and three at Seattle.
"Then it becomes a lot more fun," Iannetta said. "As the season winds down and the standings become more clear, there are lot of things involved that enhance the atmosphere. But there's still a lot of time left. Not to say that these games aren't important now, but a lot can still happen. We have a month left."
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