Injured slugger Albert Pujols was able to witness firsthand Monday night what he saw on television over the last week and a half: an Angels team that has nothing to play for acting like a team that has everything to play for.
Shortstop Erick Aybar broke out of a nine-for-60 slump in a big way, hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning and a two-run triple in the sixth to lead the Angels to their ninth victory in 10 games, an 11-2 shellacking of the playoff-contending Tampa Bay Rays at Angel Stadium.
The Angels were eight for 17 with runners in scoring position, stole four bases and went from first to third on singles three times, employing the kind of situational attack Manager Mike Scioscia loves.
They broke the game open with a five-run sixth, and Grant Green hit his first big league home run, a solo shot in the seventh.
Starting pitcher Garrett Richards (5-6) gave up one run in five innings despite a career-high seven walks. The right-hander gave up two hits and struck out six, as the Angels, coming off an 8-1 trip to Seattle, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, cut their American League West deficit to 14 1/2 games.
"It shows a lot of heart in these players," said Pujols, who suffered a season-ending left-foot injury on July 26.
"When you're this far out, you can easily lose focus and kind of give up on the season. They know the season is not over. I have a lot of respect for the guys in this clubhouse."
The Angels have scored 50 runs in their last 10 games, but pitching, for months the team's biggest weakness, has fueled the surge. They have a major league-best 2.02 earned-run average with seven quality starts during the stretch and have held hitters to a .201 average and three home runs.
"What's exciting, what we've been waiting for, is the way we're controlling the game on the defensive end, starting with our pitching staff," Scioscia said. "It's great to see it start to form — the starting pitching is going deeper, the bullpen is holding leads. It's been fun."
The Rays have lost five straight, scoring seven runs in those games, and fell to 0-9 in the Pacific time zone.
They were so far out of Monday night's 3-hour 58-minute marathon that Manager Joe Maddon summoned outfielder Sam Fuld to the mound in the eighth. Fuld, the third position player in Rays history to pitch, got J.B. Shuck to fly to center.
Howie Kendrick, out since Aug. 6 because of a left-knee sprain, has resumed full baseball activities but is running at only 70%. The second baseman hopes to return "sooner rather than later" and is confident he will play again this season. "I don't want to go into the off-season being injured," he said. … Reliever Robert Coello, who was 2-2 with a 4.30 earned-run average in 13 games when he went on the disabled list because of shoulder inflammation June 10, began a rehabilitation stint with double-A Arkansas on Monday, striking out two in a scoreless inning. … Josh Hamilton, limited by a sore throwing shoulder and migraines to two pinch-hit appearances in three weekend games, returned to the lineup as the designated hitter Monday. … Reliever Juan Gutierrez (biceps inflammation) is day to day.
Twitter: @MikeDiGiovannaCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times