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Downing’s Late, Great Show : With a Game on the Line, Angel DH Sparkles Again

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Times Staff Writer

If the Angels have proved anything in this up-and-down, hot-and-cold, they’re-completely-out-of-it, oh-no-they’re-not season, it is that they are tenacious.

The Angels have pulled themselves out of the division cellar and into third place. They have traded in long losing streaks for sizzling winning binges, such as the 6-1 trip they just completed.

So, when the Angels found themselves down 2-0 to the Chicago White Sox in the first game of Friday night’s doubleheader, they didn’t worry. And, though Manager Cookie Rojas winced when his team blew a 5-2 lead by allowing Chicago to tie the game in the top of the ninth, the Angels didn’t panic.

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After all, these are the new and improved Angels. The clutch Angels. They have done it before and on Friday they did it again, with a 6-5 victory in 10 innings.

Spearheading the never-say-die attitude was Mr. Clutch himself, designated hitter Brian Downing.

Downing, who has been delivering a lot of late (he hit .333 on the Angels’ trip), sent a high fastball into the left-field stands in the eighth inning. The three-run home run broke a 2-2 tie and gave the Angels a 5-2 lead.

And when that lead vanished in the 10th, Downing was right there, following Wally Joyner’s lead-off single with a base hit of his own. Joyner eventually scored the winning run on Jack Howell’s single.

It was Downing’s vampire-like quality coming through. The later it gets, the busier he gets.

He is at his most productive and happiest in late innings with the game on the line. Ten of the 17 home runs he has hit this season have either tied the game or put the Angels ahead, and five of those home runs were hit in the seventh inning or later.

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Eight of Downing’s 10 game-winning RBIs have been in the seventh or later and though he lost the chance at the game-winning RBI in Friday’s opener, he set the pace for the comeback.

“He’s been a clutch hitter for this organization for many years,” Rojas said. “Lately he’s really been on track.”

Downing started the season off-track. He hit .111 in April. But since May, when he hit .333, he has been playing an integral part in the Angels’ comeback. Going into Friday’s game he was hitting .257 and, in addition to his 17 home runs, has 44 RBIs.

Part of Downing’s increased productivity comes from the fact that he’s now hitting in the middle of the lineup----fourth in Friday’s first game----rather than at the leadoff spot, where he spent much of the early part of the season.

But most of the 37-year-old’s success can be attributed to that wisest of all teacher’s: experience.

“When you’ve been up to bat 7,000 times . . . “ Downing, who is in his 11th season with the Angels, said with a shrug.

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Friday’s first game was a typical one for Downing. His early innings served simply as a wake-up call. Downing flied to right field in his first two at bats and popped up to first base in his third.

So, when his fourth at-bat approached and the Angels had Devon White at second and one out, Chicago decided to walk Joyner to get to Downing.

Obviously the White Sox haven’t tuned into the “Late Innings with Brian Downing” show.

But Downing doesn’t care.

“It’s nothing personal,” he said. “You expect that. It was an appropriate move. I’d popped up three balls at that point.”

All the same, he didn’t hesitate in showing the White Sox that they had made a mistake. He swung at pitcher Jack McDowell’s first pitch and took it deep into the corner.

“My adrenaline is flowing in those situations,” he said. “I’d had an off-day. But I learn from my mistakes.”

And, it seemed, so have the Angels.

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