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A’s Fire First Shot

Times Staff Writer

This was the kind of moment Vladimir Guerrero lives for, the kind of situation he thrives on: two on, two out, bottom of the 11th inning, Angels trailing by a run, home crowd on its feet in anticipation, the 2004 American League most valuable player at the plate, a dramatic finish one mighty swing of the bat away.

That mighty swing came on a pitch from Oakland closer Huston Street, but the heroics the Angels have grown so accustomed to did not follow. Street shattered Guerrero’s bat, producing a weak grounder to second base, and the Angels were left to pick up the pieces of a crushing 2-1 loss to the A’s in Angel Stadium.

Francisco Rodriguez pitched out of a runner-on-third, one-out jam to preserve a 1-1 tie in the 10th, but the Angel closer grooved a 2-and-0 fastball to Bobby Kielty to lead off the 11th, and the Oakland outfielder belted it into the right-field seats for the game-winning home run.

The A’s extended their win streak to seven and opened a two-game lead over the Angels in the AL West, while the offensively impaired Angels lost their fifth in a row -- a season-high losing streak -- and remain one game behind the New York Yankees in the wild-card standings.

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“I don’t think there’s any way to sugar-coat it; we’ve got a lot of guys who have gone soft on the offensive side who need to pick it up,” Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We’re a better team than this.”

Guerrero, who declined to comment afterward, is certainly a better hitter than he has shown in the last 14 games, a dreadful stretch in which the slugger is batting .220 (11 for 50) with one run batted in.

Tuesday night, Guerrero made first-pitch outs in his first three at-bats, none resulting in solid contact, and he struck out on an inside curve in the dirt in the ninth when it appeared Oakland starter Barry Zito was trying to pitch around him.

“Vlad’s strength is his aggressiveness; at times it’s a double-edged sword,” Scioscia said. “I’ve seen him square up balls on first pitches and hit them all over the ballpark. His first couple times [Tuesday] he was swinging at pitches that maybe were a little tough to handle.”

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The Angels wasted a brilliant effort by ace Bartolo Colon, who held red-hot Oakland to one run and six hits in 9 1/3 innings to end August with a 5-0 record and 1.72 earned-run average in six starts.

The A’s had 18 home runs and 56 runs in their previous six games, but Colon needed only 92 pitches to buzz through them in nine innings, his only blemish in the fourth, when Eric Chavez doubled to right-center and scored on Dan Johnson’s single.

Zito gave up three hits and struck out nine in nine innings, his only mistake a fastball that Robb Quinlan lined to left for an eighth-inning home run -- Quinlan’s first since May 8 -- that pulled the Angels even, 1-1.

Colon became the first Angel starter to begin a 10th inning since Mark Langston on Sept. 27, 1992, at Chicago. Johnson capped an 11-pitch at-bat to open the 10th with a flare to left that a sliding Garret Anderson failed to catch. The ball squirted past Anderson for a double, and Scott Hatteberg bunted Johnson to third.

Scioscia summoned his closer, and Rodriguez responded by getting Jay Payton to foul out to first baseman Darin Erstad, who made the catch as he banged into the rail in front of a camera well, and striking out Nick Swisher on a slider.

But Rodriguez didn’t fool Kielty in the 11th.

“I was trying to get a fastball away; I don’t think it was away at all,” Rodriguez said. “It was right down the middle, and a little up in the zone. It looked like he was looking for that pitch.... He hit it so far away.”

The Angels didn’t generate much offense during the game but created a stir before it, acquiring left-handed reliever Jason Christiansen from San Francisco and informing struggling center fielder Steve Finley he would be benched indefinitely.

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Finley, 40, in the first year of a two-year, $14-million contract, is batting .195 since the All-Star break, and in a meeting with Scioscia on Tuesday afternoon, he was told Chone Figgins would be the team’s regular center fielder.

“We expected production [from Finley] and he’s struggled,” Scioscia said. “We have 30 games left, and we need to pressure other clubs, so we’re going to go with productive bats.”

Scioscia also tweaked his lineup, flip-flopping Anderson, who is hitting .237 since the All-Star break, and Guerrero -- Anderson hit third and Guerrero fourth -- and dropping Erstad from the third spot to sixth behind Bengie Molina.

“If you look at it statistically, it makes a lot of sense to have Vlad ahead of G.A. because of Vlad’s on-base percentage,” Scioscia said. “But that flat-out hasn’t worked out for the last month. Hopefully, G.A. will see some better pitches. We need to get both those guys going.”


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