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Angels Still on Top, but It’s Not Pretty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Angels may have been running on empty lately, but Manager Terry Collins is still able to twist his perspective until he sees the tank as half full.

“We’re playing as bad as we can play and we’re still in first place,” he said before Wednesday night’s game against Tampa Bay. And he even managed a weary grin. But when someone pointed out that the Angels couldn’t seem to catch a break while losing nine of 11, he wasn’t smiling anymore.

“We’re not getting any good breaks, but we’re not playing any good baseball, either,” he said.

Both trends pretty much continued Wednesday night, but the Angels beat the losingest team in the American League, 4-2, in front of 19,681 at Edison Field.

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Any victory celebration was tempered by the fact that ace Chuck Finley was injured on a freak play in the fifth inning when he slid on both knees while trying to tag out Randy Winn at first base and opened a nasty gash on his right knee. Finley, whose only outing shorter than Wednesday’s was on May 2 when he was struck on the elbow by a line drive, was covering first after Winn hit a grounder wide of first. Cecil Fielder snagged the ball near the outfield grass and threw to Finley, who fell to his knees and tried to swipe a tag on Winn as he raced past.

Finley wasn’t limping as he returned to the mound, but the veteran left-hander left the game without attempting any warmup pitches. The wound required several stitches to close and Finley’s next start is in question.

“I figured the worst it could be was a bad scrape, but when I saw how long and how deep it was, I told him there was no way I could let him keep pitching,” Collins said. “He must have hit a rock or something to open up a hole like that.”

The Angels continued to play some very shaky defense, but Cecil Fielder hit a homer in the fourth for the go-ahead run and drove in another run in the fifth and, hey, even an ugly victory over the flagging Devil Rays--who committed two errors to the Angels’ one--counts the same as any other in the standings.

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And the Angels increased their lead over Texas to 1 1/2 games because the Rangers suffered a 14-3 thrashing at the hands of Baltimore.

Shigetoshi Hasegawa came on in relief and gave up a single and a walk sandwiched around a couple of strikeouts to load the bases with two out. It was an inning during which the Angels severely tested Collins’ ability to look on the bright side.

They botched a pickoff play, one of Hasegawa’s deliveries slipped under catcher Matt Walbeck’s legs, albeit not quite far enough to allow a run to score and they finally escaped the inning when Hollins held on to Paul Sorrento’s pop foul despite a jarring collision with Walbeck.

“There were a lot of things that could have happened but didn’t,” Collins said, “but this game was all about Shiggy. For him to get out of that inning with guys on second and third and nobody out, that was huge.”

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Fielder had given the Angels a 3-2 lead in the fourth when he launched a rocket 410 feet into the left-field bleachers--his first home run since June 28--and then increased the margin to two runs in the fifth with a run-scoring single to center after third baseman Bobby Smith’s fielding error on a Tim Salmon ground ball extended the inning.

The Angels’ run of foul luck and their lack of clutch hitting seemed to have changed in the first inning when Darin Erstad beat out a grounder to short and scored from first on Salmon’s two-out double to left-center. Salmon came around to make it 2-0 when Garret Anderson hit a pop-up to short center that dropped between shortstop Aaron Ledesma, second baseman Miguel Cairo and center-fielder Winn, all of whom were glancing expectantly from one to another, apparently trying to guess who was going to catch it.

The Angels’ fielding woes continued, however. In the fourth, Quinn McCracken’s grounder to third eluded Hollins for an error. Hollins, who made just two errors in the first 42 games, has committed two in as many games and 11 in the last 44.

McCracken stole second and scored on Smith’s single to right. Smith stole second, took third on a groundout and scored on Sorrento’s sacrifice fly.

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