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 led to 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 victory at Angel Stadium.
With the score tied, 3-3, Albert Pujols opened the 10th with a walk and took third on Josh Hamilton's ground ball that squirted through the middle and into center field for a single.
Kendrick, after fouling a two-strike pitch that bounced up and hit him in the mouth, worked a full count off reliever Ryan Cook before driving a ball to deep right field to score Pujols and give the Angels a two-game lead over the A's in the American League West.
"It kind of knocked some sense into me," Kendrick said of the foul ball. "Once you get to two strikes, it's about battling and trying to hang in. In those situations, you just want to compete. There's been a lot of times I've failed in that situation, so you try to take from those."
Now, the Angels must wait to see if Major League Baseball takes away what would be their 12th win in 16 games.
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 Moss had obstructed with Aybar and awarded the Angels shortstop first base.
"He had nowhere to go," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said of Aybar. "The fielder has a right to get the ball, but he doesn't have the right to block the runner's path."
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.
"He said it was a judgment call," Melvin said of Gibson. "I think it was on Moss, but that was never made clear. Regardless of what happened, if an infraction of the rules took place, you go back to that point of the game" and replay it.
Crew chief Gerry Davis said he couldn't comment specifically about the call because of the protest, but he did confirm that it was a "judgment call" by Gibson. That is important, because judgment calls, in general, cannot be overturned by protest.
The Angels failed to capitalize on the break, but it was the start of an intriguing inning.
John McDonald, pinch-hitting for David Freese, followed Aybar by beating out a bunt 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. Scioscia could have turned to the right-handed Collin Cowgill, but he stuck with the left-handed Calhoun, who popped out to shortstop.
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 the Angels, as the catchy T-shirt slogan says, should 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."