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Angels really hop to it

Times Staff Writer

This was no ordinary seeing-eye grounder. It was a multiple-hop worm-burner with X-ray vision, a roller that somehow squeaked its way through two highway pylons wearing New York Yankees uniforms to give the Angels a dramatic and somewhat shocking walk-off victory Sunday afternoon.

Chone Figgins, facing the game’s pre-eminent closer in Mariano Rivera, poked a ninth-inning single into right field to drive in Howie Kendrick from second base and give the Angels a 4-3 win and their first sweep of the Yankees in Anaheim since 1995.

First baseman Wilson Betemit, a third baseman by trade, broke for the bag, even though he clearly had a play on Figgins’ grounder.

And though second baseman Robinson Cano, with runners on first and second, was at double-play depth and shaded toward second base, he inexplicably watched the ball roll by him without trying to smother it with a dive.

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“We were wondering that, too,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said, when asked why Cano didn’t dive for the ball. “But that’s their team. That’s their problem. I’m glad it’s not my team. If it was, we’d probably be in here arguing right now.”

Rivera said he was “shocked” Betemit covered the bag instead of going for the ball, and Yankees Manager Joe Girardi was in full head-scratching mode afterward.

“I still don’t know what happened,” Girardi said. “It was a 10-hopper through the infield. It’s almost like our guys froze. No way did I think that was going to win the game.”

Neither did the Angels.

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“We thought Cano had a chance to dive for it,” Hunter said. “We were shocked. We didn’t know the game was over. Half our guys were wondering what happened.”

With the score tied, 3-3, Kendrick led off the ninth with a single against reliever Damaso Marte. Gary Matthews Jr., whose last sacrifice bunt was in 2005, failed on two bunt tries and struck out.

Mike Napoli walked, and Girardi, his team’s playoff hopes fading and a sense of desperation growing, turned to Rivera, who has a 1.43 earned-run average.

Figgins swung at Rivera’s first pitch, producing weak contact but enough to give the Angels their seventh walk-off win this season and a major league-best 74-43 record, 17-5 since the All-Star break.

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“I was counting the hops all the way down to first base,” said Figgins, who began the game hitting .254 with runners in scoring position. “It was a lot of them, I know that.”

Closer Francisco Rodriguez struck out the side in the ninth, rebounding from a 3-and-0 count to whiff Jason Giambi with three changeups for the third out, to earn the win.

Starter Joe Saunders failed to notch win No. 15, but it was a meaningful no-decision for the left-hander, who minimized damage during the Yankees’ two-run first inning and escaped runner-on-third, one-out jams in the fifth and seventh innings.

A 20-win season is within Saunders’ reach, but a more important statistic for the pitcher is this: The Angels are 18-5 in his 23 starts.

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“It would be awesome to win 20 games, but look at today,” said Saunders, who gave up three runs and six hits in seven innings. “I feel the same way with a no-decision when the team wins. In the back of my mind, I still got the win.”

Saunders threw 21 pitches and gave up a run each on Bobby Abreu’s single and Alex Rodriguez’s double before recording his first out. But he got Xavier Nady on a fielder’s-choice grounder and Cano on a double-play grounder to end the first inning.

The Angels scored three runs in the third inning, the Yankees scored once in the fourth to tie, and Kendrick made an over-the-shoulder catch of Derek Jeter’s pop to shallow right-center field to end the seventh.

After the first four batters of the game, the Yankees were 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position. The Angels were 18 for 32 (.563) with runners in scoring position in the series, their last hit leading to a slow, painful loss for the Yankees.

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“It was the perfect ball,” Saunders said of Figgins’ game winner. “He hit it in the right spot.”

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com


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