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Key Victories and the A’s Are Like Hand and Glove

The happy music of baseball’s lavender confines was drowned out Monday by the hard snap of leather.

So this is what a pennant race sounds like.

Sixth inning, two out, tying run on third base, the Angels’ Scott Spiezio shoots a hard bouncer down the first-base line.

Scott Hatteberg dives to his left and snares the ball with a popping sound heard all the way to Oakland.

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Spiezio slumps. The Athletics leap.

Seventh inning, none out, tying run on first base, Brad Fullmer hits a hard bouncer up the middle.

Miguel Tejada makes a running stab and flips the ball behind him while hopping like a ballerina. Mark Ellis catches it on second base and, pirouetting like a member of the same dance company, flips it to first.

Double play, the Angels are exasperated, and there’s still more.

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Eighth inning, two out, tying run on first base, it’s Chone Figgins, fastest guy on the field, two-for-two in stolen bases since joining the team and....

Do we really need to finish this?

OK, so left-hander Ricardo Rincon holds him close to first, then Ramon Hernandez throws him out trying to steal second, the inning is over, and now everybody knows.

This is what a pennant race sounds like. This is what it feels like. This is how it is won.

This is what the Angels, who lost to the Athletics, 2-1, in the first of a four-game showdown here, must match.

With 19 games remaining and the Seattle Mariners imploding at every turn, the Angels’ four-game lead in the wild-card race feels like 14.

But after Monday, their three-game deficit in the AL West title race feels like 30.

It’s no big deal in what order the top two teams finish, unless you think a first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Twins would be easier than a first-round series against the New York Yankees.

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So, of course, it’s a very big deal.

But, answering questions about whether they would lose inspiration after their 20-game win streak ended, the Athletics are the real deal.

“In low-scoring games, you have to make all the plays,” Manager Art Howe said. “We did that tonight ... and made a few that most teams would not.”

Already distanced from the 10-game win streak fashioned against Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the Angels have officially been reminded that this is not going to be easy.

They have also been reminded that this time of year is different.

On a warm Monday that still felt like autumn, beach balls at Edison Field were mostly ignored.

The 28,145 fans were so jazzed, at one point they gave a standing ovation to a third-out fly ball that was still in the air.

The rally monkey showed up, but most people were too busy staring at the hopping fastballs of Oakland’s Tim Hudson.

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It was fun. And, for the Angels, awfully frustrating.

They felt it at the beginning of the game, when Tejada made a bare-handed running grab of Darin Erstad’s grounder, barely throwing him out.

They felt it at the end, when, adding one more fielding gem to the display, Terrence Long made a running catch of Erstad’s ninth-inning line drive.

These guys are good.

These guys are experienced.

Heading for their third consecutive postseason, they’re not going to panic.

“Yeah, I think that means something,” said Howe. “Until you actually experience something in this game, you never know how you’re going to react.”

For most of the game, the Angels reacted well.

Hudson didn’t allow an Angel ball to leave the infield in the first three innings, but they didn’t try to force their swings.

Kevin Appier made two early two mistakes, both turned into home runs by Jermaine Dye and Long, but he also recovered.

Garret Anderson, as he has done all season, calmly brought the Angels closer with a soaring shot into the right-field stands in the fifth inning.

And when the Angels could have crumbled, they didn’t.

The A’s loaded the bases with none out in the top of sixth inning on two Appier walks and a blooper. The veteran Appier, who threw seven consecutive balls at one point, was loudly cursing. The infielders were restless.

And then Appier found something, striking out Dye on three pitches, striking out David Justice on five pitches, fooling Ellis into a fly ball on three pitches.

Those are the sorts of moments that usually win games.

This one did not.

There will be questions about Mike Scioscia’s decision to bat Shawn Wooten for hot-hitting Adam Kennedy with Figgins on first base in the eighth inning, especially after Wooten struck out.

Rincon had just come into the game, and Kennedy rarely bats against left-handers, so it wasn’t anything new, but still....

“Rincon had just been really tough on lefties,” explained Scioscia.

On this night, though, those sorts of questions were lost in the deep Athletic gloves.

This was not about one moment. This was about a bunch of them, loud and leathery and potentially lasting.

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com.


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