Hard to tell what took the worst pummeling Sunday, Vladimir Guerrero’s pine tar-covered batting helmet or the baseball the slugger plastered for the Angels’ most dramatic hit of the season.
Guerrero followed Chone Figgins’ leadoff single in the ninth inning by crushing Baltimore closer Chris Ray’s hanging slider far over the left-center-field wall for the ninth walk-off home run of his career, lifting the Angels to a 4-3, come-from-behind victory over the Orioles in Angel Stadium.
There was no doubt Guerrero had connected for home run No. 350 in his career. After finishing his swing, he raised his right arm high over his head and took a few steps out of the batter’s box. The moment the ball cleared the wall, Guerrero brought his fist down as if striking an anvil.
Then, after circling the bases, Guerrero was greeted at home plate by a human wrecking ball, a mass of joyous teammates who administered such a beating on their hero that Guerrero must have felt as if he were in one of those mixed martial arts bouts.
“They do hit you pretty hard when you score,” a grinning Guerrero said through an interpreter. “I felt a few punches here and there, but the overwhelming feeling of winning takes care of that.”
Two pitches before hitting the Angels’ first walk-off homer since Adam Kennedy’s three-run shot beat the Orioles last Sept. 5, Guerrero’s overwhelming feeling was anger. Ray’s first pitch appeared to cross the plate around Guerrero’s shins, but umpire Brian Knight called it a strike.
Guerrero, rarely one to show emotion, took several steps toward the Angels dugout, muttering in disgust.
“I thought the pitch was down,” Guerrero said. “In that situation, what I’ve learned is to back off the plate. Even though I was saying a couple things to myself in Spanish and they were not directed at the umpire, I backed myself up and got ready for a pitch I could handle.”
Guerrero took a slider in the dirt for ball one. Then came the hanging slider, and Guerrero didn’t miss it, launching his 12th homer of the season to give the Angels their 10th win in 13 games and a 36-22 record, tying the best mark in club history after 58 games. But this was not a case of Guerrero taking his frustration out on a pitch.
“I’m going to go up there and swing hard whether they’re throwing inside on me or the umpire makes a call I don’t agree with,” Guerrero said. “I’m going to keep the same approach.”
Guerrero’s reaction after the first pitch caught Manager Mike Scioscia by surprise.
“Vlad doesn’t usually say anything,” he said. “Obviously, he didn’t agree with the call, but something like that is not going to affect him. It’s not like there was any extra incentive for him. I’ve never seen him when he’s not locked in on any pitch.”
Ervin Santana, who gave up three runs and seven hits in seven innings, striking out eight and walking one, had a premonition Guerrero was going to win the game, in which the Angels managed two runs and three hits in eight innings against Orioles starter Jeremy Guthrie.
“He was 0 for 3, but there was something in my heart that told me he was going to hit a home run,” Santana said. “He waited for his pitch and hit it pretty good.”
Guerrero’s homer gave reliever Chris Bootcheck, who retired the side in order in the ninth, the first victory of his career. The Angels also got a rare one-two-three inning in the eighth from struggling left-hander Darren Oliver, who lowered his earned-run average from 7.98 to 7.47.
The Orioles broke a 1-1 tie on Melvin Mora’s solo homer in the fourth and took a 3-1 lead on Jay Payton’s run-scoring single in the sixth. But the Angels inched closer in the eighth when Shea Hillenbrand singled with one out, pinch-hitter Casey Kotchman dunked an opposite-field double to left and Howie Kendrick hit a run-scoring groundout.
“We didn’t get many good looks against Guthrie,” Scioscia said, “but we scratched enough to stay close and got the big hit at the end.”