It wasn’t exactly a blowout, but compared to the Angels’ previous eight games, all nail-biters decided by one or two runs, one of them going 12 innings, it was a relative breather.
The Angels strung together four two-out hits and a walk during a tiebreaking three-run sixth inning Thursday night, and Bengie Molina added a home run in the eighth for a 7-4 victory over the Texas Rangers in Angel Stadium.
Rookie right-hander Ervin Santana threw six strong innings, and Kelvim Escobar, serving as middle reliever, setup man and closer, allowed one run in three sharp innings as the Angels completed a three-game sweep of the Rangers, extended their win streak to six and increased their American League West lead over Oakland to three games with 10 games remaining.
The Angels’ magic number (any combination of Angel wins and A’s losses) to clinch their second straight division championship is eight.
“It’s better to be up three games than down three, but we have three tough games against Tampa Bay [beginning tonight] and four at Oakland [beginning Monday],” said Angel second baseman Adam Kennedy, who had two doubles, a single and a run batted in Thursday. “A three-game lead seems like a lot to some, but it’s not.”
A two- or three-run deficit used to seem like a lot to the Angels, who struggled all season to cobble together enough offense to support their pitching.
But the Angels rallied from three runs down with a two-out, four-run outburst in the seventh inning of Wednesday night’s 6-5 win, and after falling behind, 2-0, early Thursday, the Angels scored three runs after two were out in the third inning and three more after two were out in the sixth, a rally that featured Kennedy’s run-scoring single and Chone Figgins’ two-run single.
“It’s been a tough year, we’ve struggled at times, but we’re still in first place, that’s the bottom line,” said Escobar, who allowed one hit in three innings for his first save since May 4, 2003.
“It’s good to see the guys coming from behind like we did the last two nights. Hopefully we can continue to do that and just play our game. We all know we can do that, finish up strong and get to the playoffs.”
Escobar is the epitome of finishing strong. The right-hander went on the disabled list three times before undergoing surgery to shave down a bone chip in his elbow in late June, a procedure that sidelined him for two months.
When Escobar returned earlier this month, it was clear he was needed to bolster a sagging bullpen, and the former starter eagerly accepted a relief role. He has now allowed three runs and seven hits in 15 relief innings, and Thursday night, he gave closer Francisco Rodriguez a much-needed night off.
“The depth he’s recreated at the back end of our bullpen is important,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “We can give Frankie and [Scot] Shields a night off and still have an arm like Kelvim’s. That’s going to be very important down the stretch.”
So is an opportunistic offense, which must compensate for a lack of power with clutch hitting, as the Angels did again Thursday.
With the score tied, 3-3, Ranger reliever Edison Volquez got two quick outs in the sixth, but Juan Rivera grounded a single to center, and Molina followed with a single to left.
Volquez walked .218-hitting Steve Finley on four pitches to load the bases, and Kennedy followed with a run-scoring single to right to give the Angels a 4-3 lead. Figgins fell behind in the count, 0-and-2, before stroking a 2-2 pitch into right-center for a two-run single and a 6-3 lead. Molina’s 14th homer of the year made it 7-3 in the eighth.
“We just kept having good at-bats, for the most part,” Kennedy said. “No one was up there trying to do too much, and that can result in hits. ... This is the kind of offense we hoped would emerge, putting together hits, especially with two outs.”
The rally made a winner of Santana, who allowed three runs and six hits in six innings to improve to 10-8, becoming the first Angel rookie with 10 wins since Jason Dickson won 13 in 1997. Santana is 9-3 with a 3.18 ERA in 14 starts at home.
Texas took a 2-0 lead on Mark Teixeira’s first-inning sacrifice fly and Hank Blalock’s third-inning RBI single, but the Angels countered with three in the third on Guerrero’s RBI single and Casey Kotchman’s two-run double.
Guerrero extended his hitting streak against Texas to 34 games, the longest by a player against one team since Ken Griffey Jr. hit in 35 straight against Cleveland from 1992-96.
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AL West race
The Angels increased their lead to three games over Oakland in the division, with 10 to play:
*--* TEAM W-L PCT. GB ANGELS 87-65 572 -- Oakland 84-68 553 3
*--* * ANGEL SCHEDULE Tampa Bay Tonight-Sunday at Oakland Monday-Thursday at Texas Sept. 30-Oct. 2
*--* * OAKLAND SCHEDULE Texas Tonight-Sunday ANGELS Monday-Thursday at Seattle Sept. 30-Oct. 2