Downing's Ugly Little Homer Beats Yankees, 5-4

Times Staff Writer

Consider the baseball career of Brian Downing. Eleven years as an Angel. Witness to three excruciating defeats in the American League playoffs. Veteran of all the collapses and all the disappointment that have dogged this franchise for more than a decade.

Is it any wonder Downing reigns as the Angels' pre-eminent pessimist?

"That's my personality," he said. "I'm hard on everything. I'm very hard on myself when I don't come through--and I've never rewarded myself when I have. That's the way I've always been."

And that's why Downing grimaced and flung his bat to the ground in anger after hitting the home run that gave the Angels a startling, come-from-behind 5-4 victory over the New York Yankees Friday night before a crowd of 30,133 at Yankee Stadium.

"I was disgusted by that swing," Downing said after pinging a Cecilio Guante pitch off the left-field foul pole, with the Angels trailing by a run, and down to their last out, with Junior Noboa on base.

"I started to pull 'a Chili Davis,' " he added, referring to the act of breaking one's bat over one's knee, a move made famous by the Angel right fielder. "It crossed my mind. But I figured I've embarrassed myself enough with the bat already this year.

"So, I threw it instead."

It was a fluke home run, coming on what Downing called "one mediocre swing," but that's what it takes for the Angels to win a game these days. Before Downing struck the base of the pole, just above the reach of Yankee left fielder Rickey Henderson, the Angels trailed New York, 4-3, and appeared headed for their third straight defeat.

Instead, Downing was credited with a two-run home run--remarkably, it was his first ever at Yankee Stadium--and it salvaged an otherwise forgettable night for the Angel defense, which handed the Yankees two unearned runs on errors by Davis and shortstop Dick Schofield.

"It was good to come back and win a game like that," Angel Manager Cookie Rojas said. "We gave them two runs on errors, but Downing came through for us. He's starting to swing the bat better and producing like he wants to. Something like this might make Brian start to feel good about himself again."

Not so fast.

"You want me to do handstands?" Downing sarcastically remarked to reporters. "I'm blasting away at .170. I've been doing great, really helping us.

"It's an understatement for me to say that I'm disgusted with my play this year. It's hard for me to get excited about one mediocre swing. And I'm sure I'm not alone with that feeling.

"Basically, I've had a miserable year and I'd just like to break out and help the team directly rather than indirectly or not at all. One swing doesn't make up for the last 20 days. It's a start, that's all."

Before Friday, Downing was batting .179 with 1 home run and 6 RBIs. After a two-run home run and a single in five at-bats against the Yankees, he's hitting .197 with 2 home runs and 8 RBIs.

The ledger is far from balanced in Downing's mind.

"This was luck, pure luck," he said. "The way I look at it, I'm still down about two dozen."

The Angels were down, 4-3, at the outset of the ninth inning. And they were still there two quick outs later, before Guante (2-2) hit pinch-hitter George Hendrick with a pitch, putting pinch-runner Noboa on first base just ahead of Downing.

And the Angels were trailing because of fielding mistakes by Schofield--something of a rarity--and Davis.

Schofield let a ground ball bounce off his glove in the fifth inning, allowing Don Slaught to score from second base. Davis kicked a sixth-inning single by Mike Pagliarulo for another error, Davis' sixth of the season, to allow Claudell Washington to score the tying run and move Pagliarulo into position for the go-ahead run.

Rojas forgave Schofield, saying: "The runner (Slaught, breaking from second base) ran right in front of him."

Davis' error, however, was the last in a six-pack of the same variety--a base hit to right that Davis, for whatever reason, could not field on the first hop.

"Maybe he's worrying about his hitting," Rojas said, searching for an explanation. "Maybe it's interfering with his fielding. He was hitting when we weren't, and now that he's slumping a little, maybe he's thinking too much about it and letting it affect his fielding.

"We're working with him every day. It's not like we're letting it go."

Those two errors helped drive Angel starter Kirk McCaskill from the game after six innings. Willie Fraser, moved temporarily to the bullpen to fortify Angel relief through this East Coast trip, pitched the seventh and eighth innings and did not allow a hit.

DeWayne Buice came on in the bottom of the ninth inning and did the same. Fraser (4-2) was credited with the victory, and Buice earned the save, his third of the season.

Angel Notes

Ex-Angel John Candelaria welcomed his former teammates to Yankee Stadium in his own way--with a few verbal jabs, of course. To wit: "I thanked Mike Port when he traded me last September. And, I told him I'd be glad to meet with him for lunch when the season was over in October and tell him what is wrong with his team. But we never had it. I would assume if someone told you he knew what was wrong with your team, you'd want to find out--unless I was the problem. And I wasn't." So what, then, is the Angels' problem? Candelaria shook his head. "If (Port) didn't want the answer then, I assume he doesn't want it now," Candelaria said. "He has all the answers." . . . Friday's victory gave the Angels a 2-18 record during games in which they trailed entering the ninth inning. That's not much, but it's already better than the 1-73 mark the Angels posted in such games in 1987. . . . When Tony Armas homered against Neil Allen in the third inning, it ended a streak of 97 consecutive homerless innings for the Angels. . . . The Angels announced the signing of pitcher Richard Monteleone to a triple-A contract.

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