The line drive shot off Johnny Giavotella’s bat toward center field for what looked like a routine single to lead off the eighth inning until Seattle outfielder Brad Miller slowed on his approach to the ball.
Giavotella did not slow around first base. He accelerated toward second base and slid head-first for a double, just under Robinson Cano’s tag.
An Erick Aybar sacrifice bunt and a Kole Calhoun single off the glove of first baseman Jesus Montero later, the Angels had the decisive run of Sunday’s 3-2 victory over the Mariners that kept their playoff hopes very much alive.
The Angels’ fifth consecutive victory and eighth in 10 games kept them half a game behind Houston for the second American League wild-card spot and moved them to within three games of Texas for the West lead with seven games left.
And for that they had a 5-foot-8, 185-pound second baseman known as “The Flying Cannoli,” the human sparkplug that pitcher Jered Weaver called “a firecracker,” to thank.
“I told him I was gonna kill him if he was out, but since he was safe, that was a great play,” Calhoun said. “He’s always gonna push the envelope, and it paid off and won us the game.”
The Angels never know what to expect from Giavotella, who, after sitting out a month because of a condition that caused double-vision, returned Friday night and capped a sixth-inning triple with a soaring, belly-flop of a slide that would have made Pete Rose proud.
Asked whether he thought there was any chance Giavotella would end up at second base on the play, Manager Mike Scioscia chuckled and said, “You never know where Johnny is gonna end up, so I wouldn’t put it past him.” Scioscia then praised Giavotella’s hustle and instincts.
“He’s the epitome of playing the game the right way,” Scioscia said. “As a kid, you’re taught to run through bases, look to the next base, let the play evolve, and that was textbook right there. It was a little hairy, a little risky, but we’re going to err on the side of being aggressive.”
Giavotella thought he had a good chance when he saw Miller “lob the ball in,” but the throw actually beat Giavotella to the bag.
“I was a little nervous when I saw the ball come in and Cano caught it,” Giavotella said, “but luckily it was a short hop that took his glove up in the air and I was able to scoot under him.”
Giavotella’s hustle changed the complexion of the inning because the infield was in when Calhoun came to bat.
“If we have to bunt [pinch-runner Taylor] Featherston to second, Kole hits a bullet, Montero isn’t in and gets a chance to field the ball, we don’t score,” Scioscia said. “Any time you can get to second with no outs as opposed to first, that’s a huge swing.”
The Mariners tied the score, 2-2, in the eighth inning when Mark Trumbo, the former Angels slugger, lined a pinch-hit home run to center field against Fernando Salas.
The Angels scored in the fourth inning when Mike Trout singled, took second base on a groundout and scored on David Murphy’s single. They took a 2-1 lead in the fifth when David Freese delivered his third clutch hit in four games, a home run to right field against starter Hisashi Iwakuma.
With closer Huston Street (left groin strain) and setup man Joe Smith (left ankle sprain) unavailable, right-hander Mike Morin retired the heart of the Seattle order — Nelson Cruz (strikeout), Cano (strikeout) and Montero (fly out) — in the ninth inning for his first career save.
That capped another solid bullpen effort that included five outs from Cory Rasmus and two from left-hander Cesar Ramos in relief of Weaver, who left after five one-run, four-hit innings because of shoulder tightness that is not expected to affect his next start.
“I can’t say enough about this bullpen,” Scioscia said. “They keep coming in and doing whatever we need.”
Left-hander Hector Santiago (9-9, 3.47 ERA) will oppose Oakland left-hander Felix Doubront (3-3, 5.53) on Monday at 7 p.m. at Angel Stadium. TV: FS West; Radio: 830, 1330.