Jeff Mathis helps resurrect the Angels

The catcher, who drove in the winning run, makes Mike Scioscia look like a genius when the manager opts not to remove him.

October 20, 2009|BILL DWYRE

Along about the fifth inning at Angel Stadium on Monday, they were cueing the funeral music. The patient was on life support, and nary a twitching eyelash could be found.

The Damn Yankees were in town, their howitzers had already unloaded three times on Angels pitcher Jered Weaver, and this best-of-seven American League Championship Series was looking like a four-game publicity stunt for the Yankees, even without their own Balloon Boy.

But when it comes to things such as momentum and reality, these Angels of Manager Mike Scioscia are slow learners. All season, and for several seasons going back to their 2002 World Series title, they have not reacted normally when another team has its shoe on their throat.

And so it came to pass that, in yet another postseason baseball game flush with drama and more twists and turns than Kobe Bryant with the ball and three seconds left, the Angels found another hero and had another resurrection.

The hero was among the least likely, catcher Jeff Mathis.

His shot into the gap in left field in the 11th inning sent Howie Kendrick home with a 5-4 victory, sent most of the 44,911 fans in attendance into a frenzy of joy and disbelief and turned a rout back into a series.

"That was a heck of a ballgame this afternoon," said Scioscia, master strategist and king of the understatement.

After the Yankees had handled the Angels in the Friday night opener in New York, 4-1, the Angels lost a five-hour, 10-minute roller coaster Saturday night and followed that with four hours and 21 minutes of the same Monday.

The next two games are back at the Big A, tonight and Thursday night. Thanks to Mathis, plus a supporting cast of Kendrick and Vlad Guerrero, it is a series again, rather than just more Yankees legacy-building.

Mathis is a 26-year-old from the Florida Panhandle who is not even the Angels' starting catcher. He and Mike Napoli are more like A and 1-A. Scioscia likes Mathis because he is a down-in-the-dirt, blue-collar player behind the plate, much like a player named Scioscia once was. Who knows, had somebody else been managing the Angels, Mathis and his weak hitting numbers might have been someplace like Tidewater by now.

He entered the game after Maicer Izturis pinch-hit for Napoli in the seventh and delivered the sacrifice fly that made it 4-4. Home runs by Bronx Bombers Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon -- all three matinee idols as well as baseball players -- had made this an unlikely, uphill battle for the Angels. But Izturis' fly had the Angels, and the Angels fans, back believing.

But doubt and incredulity crept back in the 10th inning, when Mathis opened with a double, the Angels eventually loaded the bases with one out and still couldn't score the winning run.

The most dramatic moment of that inning was Erick Aybar's attempt at a sacrifice bunt to get Mathis to third and in position to score on a fly ball. The bunt went toward third, legendary relief pitcher Mariano Rivera fielded it and tried to get Mathis at third, but threw low and the ball squirted away down the left-field line.

Mathis was on his stomach on the base.

"I didn't know that Alex [Rodriguez] missed the ball," Mathis said.

Damon, later replaced in left because his throwing arm, unlike his bat, is not a howitzer, retrieved it while Mathis was on his stomach. A great winning opportunity had evaporated. Immediately, speculation was that Scioscia should have sent speedy, scrappy Reggie Willits to pinch-run for Mathis, especially since Scioscia still had another catcher, Bobby Wilson, on the bench. Willits would have hustled home easily, many thought.

That became a bigger issue when the Angels failed to get Mathis home. And then it became a non-issue when Mathis hit his second straight double to left center in the next inning, Kendrick scrambled home, and the Angels' dugout emptied. Before he was buried in celebration, Mathis waved to his mother and grandmother in the stands.

Scioscia admitted Mathis had come close to not even getting to the plate in the 11th.

"There was a thought of pinch-running for Jeff," he said. "There was a thought of letting Gary Matthews or Reggie Willits lead off that inning" instead of Mathis.

But he allowed Mathis to bat and ended up looking like a genius. Mathis, a career .200 hitter, has the lowest career batting average of any non-pitcher in the majors with at least 700 at-bats.

Scioscia also kept Guerrero in his cleanup spot, despite a groundswell of opinion that the longtime Angels star is on the other side of his career mountain and should be demoted in the order. In the sixth, Guerrero hit a towering two-run homer to tie the score, 3-3, after Yankees starter Andy Pettitte apparently mis-remembered how to get him out.

"People don't understand," Guerrero said afterward. "We are humans, not robots."

Scioscia also sent Kendrick away early in the season, deciding the slumping veteran would best work out his swing problems at triple-A Salt Lake. He returned and put up the best batting average in the majors from July on. It was his homer in the fifth that jump-started the Angels after their 3-0 sleepwalk start.

"Getting down to the minors opened my eyes again," Kendrick said. "It made me hungry."

As usual, it was left to team leader Torii Hunter to keynote things. He called the stars of the current Yankees team "some of the best players, not just in the game, but in the history of the game." He said the way to deal with that is to keep battling and to "wait until you can smell blood."

That's what the Angels did, meaning Game 4 tonight will be the opposite of what it could have been.

A death watch.


Los Angeles Times Articles