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A nimble victory for the Angels

Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO -- In the fifth inning, Angels catcher Jeff Mathis did what Bengie Molina couldn’t do in his last season in Anaheim, display superior agility and quickness while racing 30 feet up the first-base line, bare-handing Scott Podsednik’s dribbler and making an off-balance throw to first for the out to preserve a one-run lead.

In the ninth inning, Mathis did what Josh Paul failed to do. With the potential tying run at second, closer Francisco Rodriguez struck out A.J. Pierzynski with a breaking ball in the dirt for the final out of the Angels’ 2-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox on Saturday, pushing the Angels’ American League West lead over Seattle to 8 1/2 games and reducing their magic number to seven.

Mathis, leaving nothing to chance, tagged Pierzynski on the thigh before the White Sox catcher could even think about running to first, like Pierzynski did on a similar play in Game 2 of the 2005 AL championship series, the turning point of a series the Angels lost in five games.

“Anything close to the ground in that situation,” Mathis said, “I’m tagging everyone.”

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Afterward, did Mathis think back to Paul’s playoff gaffe, when the backup catcher rolled the ball back to the mound while Pierzynski raced to first with the eventual winning run in the ninth inning of Chicago’s 2-1 win that night?

“Maybe a little bit,” he said. “I didn’t know if I caught it, to be honest with you, so I tagged him.”

Quite a catch, Mathis is turning out to be.

The Angels handed him the starting job in 2006, and Mathis fell flat on his face, batting .103 in the first month. But what got him demoted to triple-A Salt Lake was the 5.82 earned run average pitchers had in 133 innings with Mathis behind the plate.

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Thrust into a starting role in late July because of an injury to Mike Napoli, Mathis has responded like an All-Star, not because of his bat, though he has provided some clutch hits, but because of his defense and handling of pitchers, who have a 3.91 ERA in the 410 innings the rookie has caught this season.

Saturday night, Mathis helped guide Jered Weaver through a superb start, in which the right-hander gave up one run and four hits in six innings, striking out eight, walking one and throwing a career-high 114 pitches.

After left-hander Darren Oliver’s scoreless seventh, Mathis helped Scot Shields throw a scoreless eighth by making a snap-throw to first to pick off Jerry Owens, who had reached on a one-out bunt single.

Then in the ninth, Mathis did what any responsible, competent and alert catcher would do while gloving a third strike near the dirt: he tagged the batter.

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Manager Mike Scioscia, asked if it was nice to see Mathis tag Pierzynski on that play, replied, “Yeah.”

No elaboration was necessary.

On Mathis’ overall play, though, Scioscia was effusive in his praise.

“He called a terrific game, and that play he made on Podsednik’s chopper is not one you’re going to see many catchers make,” Scioscia said. “He showed terrific range.”

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And he nailed the dismount. Mathis’ momentum on the play, which came with two out and Chicago runners on second and third, carried Mathis face first into the turf between home and first.

Did Mathis realize how far down the line he had gone?

“After I laid there for a minute trying to catch my breath, yeah,” he said. “It was one of those bang-bang things. He’s fast, and I knew it would be a tough play. I was hoping it would go foul, and it stayed fair. I tried to get it there as quick as I could.”

Mathis also chipped in with a key at-bat.

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The Angels scored in the third on singles by Chone Figgins, Orlando Cabrera and Vladimir Guerrero, and the White Sox countered in the bottom of the third on Danny Richar’s double and Owens’ RBI single.

After Howie Kendrick reached second on Chicago third baseman Andy Gonzalez’s two-base throwing error to open the fourth, Mathis advanced Kendrick to third with a grounder to second. Reggie Willits then knocked in the eventual winning run with a single to center.

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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