Paul Byrd just didn’t have it Friday night at Angel Stadium.
Luckily for the normally reliable Angel right-hander, his relief corps did.
After the soft-throwing Byrd was knocked around by the pesky Tampa Bay Devil Rays to the tune of five runs and 10 hits, Angel relievers retired 13 of 14 batters and the sluggish Angel offense finally came to life in a 7-5 victory.
Casey Kotchman’s pinch-hit single through a drawn-in infield in the eighth inning was the game-winner, giving the Angels (88-65) their seventh consecutive victory. And combined with the Oakland Athletics’ 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers, the Angels’ magic number to clinch their second straight American League West championship was reduced to six.
Not that the Angels, who moved a season-best 23 games over .500 in grabbing a four-game lead over the A’s, were looking at putting the A’s away.
The Devil Rays (64-90), who have the second-worst record in the AL despite having swept the Angels at Tropicana Field Aug. 26-28 and being season-long nuisances to the New York Yankees, were enough to think about on this night.
“The bullpen kept us in the game and we scratched back into it,” Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said.
“I think the confidence is important and confidence will breed momentum.”
Scot Shields (9-11) got the win with a perfect eighth inning and closer Francisco Rodriguez picked up his 41st save with a perfect ninth.
Tampa Bay reliever Joe Borowski (1-5) took the defeat after giving up two runs in the eighth.
Byrd was fooling no one in his 4 1/3 innings. He gave up four runs in the first three innings.
“They picked me up,” Byrd said of his teammates. “I can’t say anything more than that.”
But he did, when asked if he could feel an energy creeping into the Angel dugout during their late rally, which included two runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth.
“I sense momentum,” he said. “I sense chemistry. I sense things coming together in all aspects of the game.”
Tampa Bay’s left-handed starter, Casey Fossum, had flummoxed the Angels by keeping them off balance with an array of junk pitches, including a 55-mph curve at one point.
But with the Angels trailing, 5-3, in the seventh, with one out, Darin Erstad got to Fossum, lining a solo homer run -- his seventh -- into the right-field seats. And after Jose Molina’s grounder went through Alex Gonzalez’s legs at third, Fossum was finished.
Facing Trever Miller with two out, Chone Figgins hit a flare down the right-field line for a single. With Zach Sorensen running for Molina and advancing to third on the hit-and-run, Tampa Bay right fielder Aubrey Huff rushed his throw to his cutoff man, Travis Lee at first base. Lee, in trying to scoop the ball, knocked it about 20 feet out into right, allowing Sorenson to score the tying run.
Figgins stole his 56th base, on a pitchout, to tie Gary Pettis’ 1985 mark for second-most in club history and tie the Chicago White Sox’s Scott Podsednik for the AL lead. However, he was left at second when Orlando Cabrera flied out.
The final Angel rally began with one out in the eighth. Juan Rivera drew a walk from Borowski, and Bengie Molina followed with a double into the left-field corner to put runners at second and third.
Molina was replaced by pinch-runner Curtis Pride and Kotchman stepped in to hit for Robb Quinlan.
Kotchman, who had been 0 for 7 in pinch-hit opportunities this year, came through with a single between first and second, scoring Rivera and Pride.
Said Kotchman, when asked if he was looking for any specific pitch in the at-bat: “Nothing really. You just see the baseball and react.”
In opening up their lead, the Angels hope to react better than the A’s did a year ago. The A’s held a three-game lead with nine to go only to see the Angels come into the East Bay and take the division on the second-to-last day of the season.
“We’re looking at [today’s] game,” Scioscia said. “No sense getting ahead of ourselves.”