It's one of the little beauties of baseball. Just when the game appears to be too easy for a supremely talented player, the game strikes back.
That's what happened to Francisco Rodriguez on Friday night, in the Angels' dramatic, thrilling and ultimately disappointing 4-3 loss to the Oakland Athletics. With the Angel closer one pitch away from earning the save by striking out the last three hitters, Scott Hatteberg singled home the tying and winning runs, deflating a sellout crowd of 43,810 at Angel Stadium.
"This is a big win," Hatteberg said, "to come back against that guy."
Rodriguez's calling card is his wicked slider, as unhittable as perhaps any pitch in the major leagues. The ninth inning, and thus the game, turned on that slider -- the one that got away, and the one that never was thrown.
The crowd roared in delight as Rodriguez emerged from the bullpen, a 3-2 lead his to protect. The A's got nothing off him in 11 innings last season, but that was last season.
Mark Kotsay and Marco Scutaro each singled. Eric Chavez worked the count full, then struck out looking at a slider.
Erubiel Durazo struck out, on three pitches. But strike three was a wayward slider, a critical wild pitch that enabled Kotsay to take third base and Scutaro second.
Rodriguez got two quick strikes on Hatteberg, one strike away from retiring the side on seven consecutive strikes. But Hatteberg poked an opposite-field single into left field, driving home Kotsay with the tying run and Scutaro with the go-ahead run.
The pitch from Rodriguez was a fastball, not a slider.
"This guy, with runners in scoring position, has as good a breaking ball as there is in baseball," Hatteberg said. "I was looking for it. He didn't throw it. I just reacted to the fastball."
Rodriguez declined to speak with reporters after the game. Since batters are aware he loves to finish them off with the slider, he and catcher Jose Molina opted to try to sneak a two-strike fastball past Hatteberg. Strike three would have thrilled the Angels, but a waste pitch would have been fine too.
"We were just trying to throw the pitch inside," Molina said. "He left it a little over the middle, where the guy could reach for the ball and hit it."
Starter John Lackey neither progressed nor regressed, and on this night that was good enough.
Manager Mike Scioscia summoned Lackey to a closed-door meeting this week, concerned about his inability to control his pitch count, control his emotions and avoid the big inning.
Lackey pitched five innings and needed 105 pitches, an unacceptable total. But he held the A's to two runs and he held onto his composure at a time he appeared close to losing it.
In the second inning, he made an error on a made-to-order double-play ball and later hit a batter with the bases loaded, forcing home a run. The bases remained full, with one out, but Lackey ended the inning without giving up another run.
"I made some good pitches in some tough spots," he said. "It was encouraging. But we still have a long way to go."