Darin Erstad’s season flashed before Manager Terry Collins’ eyes early Monday night when the prized Angel first baseman crashed head-first into Kansas City Royal catcher Mike Macfarlane and then staggered around home plate like a boxer who had absorbed a crushing blow to the chin.
Erstad, who played college football at Nebraska, could barely get up off his knees after the first-inning collision. A left elbow that was already sore was now numb, and he had no feeling in the fingers on his left hand.
But once Erstad came to his senses he knocked the Royals silly, belting out three hits, including a three-run homer in the ninth, and a career-high four runs batted in to lead the Angels to a 12-5 victory before 15,876 in Kauffman Stadium.
The Angels pounded four Royal pitchers for 18 hits, starting pitcher Allen Watson picked up his fourth consecutive win despite a sixth-inning collapse and reliever Rich DeLucia, a San Francisco castoff, provided three crucial scoreless innings as the Angels pulled to within a half game of the first- place Seattle Mariners in the American League West.
Afterward, Collins was thankful that Erstad, who is hitting .310 with six homers and 35 RBIs, wasn’t seeing stars for long.
“Darin is an outstanding player with an outstanding future, but we didn’t like seeing him go head-first into the catcher,” said Collins, whose team has been riddled with injuries in recent weeks.
“Macfarlane is a pretty strong guy, and I think Darin needed to use a hook slide there. Any time you have a talent like him and something like that happens, you’re afraid to lose him . . . that really scared me.”
Erstad had singled in the first and was trying to score on Tim Salmon’s double down the left field line. Shortstop Jay Bell’s relay and Erstad arrived home at about the same time, and with Macfarlane blocking the plate, Erstad said he had no choice but to dive into Macfarlane’s left thigh.
The impact sent Macfarlane sprawling, and he had no chance to catch the ball. Erstad was safe, but it was a dangerous play. “I had nowhere to go,” Erstad said.
The Angels proceeded to build a six-run lead, adding single runs in the second, third, fourth and fifth innings and two in the sixth. But it almost vanished in the sixth when Watson, who did not give up a hit from the second through fifth innings, simply crumbled.
Bip Roberts singled and Jay Bell homered, cutting the lead to 7-3. Jeff King reached on a bunt single, and Chili Davis drilled Watson’s next pitch, a thigh-high fastball, for a two-run homer, making it 7-5.
“Geez, we made four pitches, they got four runs,” Collins said. “That’s the American League for you. No lead is safe in this league.”
Joe Vitiello walked, and that was all for Watson, who was pulled for DeLucia. Craig Paquette flied to the wall in left-center and Macfarlane blooped a single to right, moving Vitiello to third.
But DeLucia struck out Tom Goodwin looking and catcher Jim Leyritz threw out Macfarlane at second for an inning-ending double play. DeLucia added two more hitless innings, and Erstad’s homer keyed a five-run ninth.
“He gave us a huge lift,” Collins said of DeLucia, a teammate of Watson’s in San Francisco and St. Louis. “The momentum shifted to their side, and he got us out of that inning with no more damage, and that gave us a lift.”
DeLucia, who came from the Giants in mid-April, has emerged as a key member of the Angel bullpen, going 4-2 with a 2.42 earned-run average in 20 appearances, allowing five of 16 inherited runners to score.
“Each time I go out there I still have to prove something, because for some reason teams get better and I get left on the backburner,” said DeLucia, a 32-year-old right-hander. “But if I’m healthy, I think I can help a lot of clubs out.”