The Angels entered September with a season-high 71/2-game deficit in the American League West, their brutal 10-19 August seemingly reducing their playoff hopes to the wild-card game.
Now look at them: Winners of seven of 10 September games, including Saturday night’s dramatic 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros in which C.J. Cron hit a tiebreaking solo home run in the eighth inning, and right in the thick of the best division race in baseball.
The Angels are now 31/2 games behind Houston with 21 games left and two behind Texas for the second wild-card spot. With four more games against both the Astros and Rangers and a relatively small deficit to overcome, the Angels suddenly have visions beyond a winner-take-all wild-card game.
“Who wants to go the wild-card game?” setup man Joe Smith said after retiring the dangerous Carlos Correa and Carlos Gomez with a runner on second for the final two outs of the eighth. “You set out to win your division, go to the playoffs and win the World Series. Our goals are still within reach.”
For that, they can thank three straight 3-2 victories, one over the Dodgers and two over the Astros, Cron’s late-game heroics, another strong Hector Santiago start — seven innings, two runs, five hits — some stout defense and a clean, two-strikeout ninth by closer Huston Street for his 35th save.
“We knew all year we had a tough division,” Smith said. “I didn’t see us running away with it like last year, and Houston and Texas got better. But right now, we’re playing meaningful games in September, and we have a chance. And we’re playing the right teams at the end too. When we win, it means something.”
Cron’s homer beyond the center-field wall off reliever Will Harris was his 12th of the season and fifth in the seventh inning or later.
“Since he came back up [from triple A] he’s been driving ball well and getting clutch hits for us,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “That was a huge hit tonight. He didn’t get all of it, but he got enough to get it out.”
Told the homer traveled an estimated 415 feet, Scioscia said, “When he gets all of it, you’ll know. C.J. has as much power as anyone in our league.”
So does Correa, the Astros’ rookie sensation. The Angels took a 2-0 lead in the second when Cron singled, Erick Aybar doubled, David Freese hit an RBI single and Carlos Perez an RBI groundout.
But with one out in the sixth, Correa fouled off five straight two-strike pitches by Santiago and capped a 12-pitch at-bat with a solo shot that traveled an estimated 469 feet.
“If you’re going to hit them long, you might as well hit them for show,” Santiago said. “I seriously watched him go into second base, and the ball was still in the air.”
So Santiago actually admired the shot?
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I’d rather give up those huge milestone homers where a guy can have a top-10 play. Those wall-scrapers, the ones that barely go out, those are the ones that aggravate you as a pitcher.”
Left-hander Andrew Heaney (6-3, 3.52 ERA) will oppose Houston right-hander Mike Fiers (2-1, 2.92) at Angel Stadium on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. TV: FS West; Radio: 830, 1330.