This month marked nine years since Cliff Pennington made his major league debut. Never in all that time had the reserve infielder managed a grand slam, not in more than 3,000 plate appearances. Not until Wednesday night at Angel Stadium, when his inconceivable seventh-inning blast completed a similarly unlikely Angels victory.
Once down five runs after their worst half-inning of the season, the Angels came back to beat Oakland, 10-8, and sweep the hapless Athletics in three games. After it ended, Pennington’s teammates teased him about how many text messages he had received congratulating his achievement.
He returned to 15 unread messages on his phone, he told them. Twelve were pictures from back home in Houston, where Hurricane Harvey has killed residents, flooded the city and forced thousands of evacuations. His slam didn’t register in the same way most rare feats at this level do.
“When you have something like this going on, obviously it feels good, because there’s a lot of not feeling good away from the field,” Pennington said. “So, it’s fun.”
Two hours earlier, Angels starter Parker Bridwell took the mound for his fourth inning, halfway to another sterling start in his surprise rookie campaign. His team had afforded him a three-run lead; he only had to be a good steward of that lead, as he has been all season. The Angels are 11-2 in his starts.
Through 87 innings in his unexpectedly successful season, he had pitched to a 2.79 earned-run average, the fifth-best mark among American League pitchers who had thrown as much.
Through three innings Wednesday, the right-hander had scattered a couple hits and a hit batsman. In 20 minutes, his night and season screeched to a halt. He faced seven batters, all of whom scored. Suddenly in the fourth inning, his pitches proved unable to miss Oakland’s bats and, also, the strike zone. First came two walks, then a double, a single and a three-run home run by Matt Olson.
The Athletics vaulted ahead, 5-3, then notched another walk and another home run, this by Bruce Maxwell. Bridwell exited the game, failing to record an out in the inning. His replacement, right-hander Blake Wood, let in another run before finishing the fourth.
Oakland’s eight-run inning was its biggest this year and the largest the Angels had surrendered, but it represented all of its offense for the night. After Wood, four Angels relievers provided scoreless relief, including right-hander Blake Parker, who earned his first four-out save.
Mike Trout returned to the Angels’ lineup after two missed games because of a stiff neck. Between the injury and a slump, it had been eight days since his last hit. He watched the first two pitches Kendall Graveman threw him Wednesday, then swung at the third.
He sent the baseball 444 feet to center field for his second-longest home run this season. He added a walk in the third inning and a triple in the fifth. Each time, Albert Pujols followed with a home run, first to right field, next to center.
The two made his lifelong total 612, tied with Jim Thome for the seventh-most all-time, and his 2017 total to 21. Pujols has homered at least 20 times in 16 seasons
The rest of the Angels’ lineup was silent until the seventh inning, when Trout started a rally by singling through the infield to left with one out. After Pujols then took a pitch off his arm, Kole Calhoun singled to score Trout. Former Dodger reliever Chris Hatcher entered the game, struck out C.J. Cron and walked Luis Valbuena on four pitches.
Up came Pennington, the utility infielder who recorded his first extra-base hit of the year on June 16. He ripped a 2-and-1 pitch down the first-base line, just foul, then received a fastball down the middle.
He thought he might hit it off the right-field wall. But, on another hot night in Anaheim, the baseball carried into the first row of seats, confirmed after a replay review.
Trout stepped to the plate the next inning with one opportunity to clinch a cycle with a double. He had done it once before, on May 21, 2013. This time, he thought about it as he approached the plate, but settled for another single. So he concluded the fruitful night, reaching base five times in five tries.
The night brought Pennington a few minutes of relief, though the tragedy was never far from his mind. He and Athletics infielder Jed Lowrie, a fellow Houstonian, talked about their families while standing at second base in Wednesday’s fourth inning. Pennington’s cousin, now staying with his family in suburban Houston, had to be rescued by personal watercraft on Monday.
Thursday will bring Pennington a trip to his home state, of which he said he was so proud this week. He was concerned about the damage done, appreciative of all those who have helped, and thankful for the distraction.
“Obviously when the game comes, it’s time to get away and do what I love to do,” he said. “When the game’s over, it’s back to reality and trying to figure out how I can help.”
On Wednesday, Angels right-hander Garrett Richards pitched for the first time since April 5. His fastball sitting at 96 mph, he threw two innings for triple-A Salt Lake in Tacoma, Wash., striking out two and walking none.
Richards threw 40 pitches, about what the Angels planned, but they had hoped he could finish three innings with that allotment. Richards went more than three months without picking up a baseball because of nerve irritation in his biceps, developed during his 2017 debut in the Angels’ third game of the season.
In May, he told The Times he believed he could return in September, and he is on track to do so.
The Angels (69-65) are one game out of the American League’s second wild-card spot and two games out of the first slot. ...Third baseman Yunel Escobar, on the disabled list with an oblique injury, felt stiffness in his side on a swing while on rehab assignment with Class-A Inland Empire. He had been scheduled to be activated Friday, but now his next step is not clear. …Shortstop Andrelton Simmons received the day off, his first time out of the lineup since June 29. He has started 131 of the Angels’ 134 games.
Follow Pedro Moura on Twitter @pedromoura