It’s not every season, never mind every day, when you open the bottom of the ninth in an apparent blowout, your designated hitter leads off by pulling to within eight of 600 career launches, he returns later in the inning to tie it up with a single, and the next man up hits one to the back of the yard to win it.
And considering their misfortunes of the past few years maybe the last team you’d have expected to do it on behalf of their first 5-2 season-opening record in ten years, not to mention first place in the American League East to start the season’s second week, is the Angels.
But that’s just what happened when Albert Pujols connected off Mariners reliever Casey Fien to open the bottom of the ninth and Cliff Pennington rapped one off Mariners closer Edwin Diaz to send Mike Trout home with the winning run Sunday afternoon. Thus was what began as a likely 9-3 burial turned into a 10-9 triumph.
The Angels were down as fat as 8-1 with two outs in the seventh. Jefry Marte’s two-run single to left seemed almost as if to say their number one concern by that point was not to lose in embarrassment. Even if Marte was embarrassed himself a trifle when he was thrown out trying to advance to second.
Half an inning later, Carlos Ruiz re-inflated the lead with a two-out RBI double. The Angels did nothing against reliever Mark Rzepczynski in their half of the eighth, the Mariners did likewise against Andrew Bailey in the bottom half.
Then Pujols stepped in against Fien and hit the belt-high first pitch up, straight away, and high enough for the wind to help it into the shrubbery behind the center field fence. Sure, the Mariners said, let the old guy have his fun, we can afford it by now.
What they couldn’t afford was the Angels loading the pads promptly with the next three hitters on two walks sandwiching a base hit. So Fien yielded to Diaz, whose particularly hard-to-hit sliders seemed to work properly at first, with a strike-one groundout from Danny Espinosa that let Pennington score the fifth Angel run and a swinging strikeout from Martin Maldonado.
Just when the Mariners thought their man would put it in the bank, Yunel Escobar said, “Stick ‘em up!” with a two-run double before taking third on a wild pitch to Kole Calhoun, who walked to set up first and third before Trout wrung himself a walk to re-load the pads.
Up returned Pujols. Bing! He cued one right through diving Mariners first baseman Danny Valencia and into right, with Escobar and Calhoun scoring and Trout grinding to third.
Up stepped Pennington, sent to spell Andrelton Simmons at shortstop in the top of the inning, and owner of a .209/.265/.308 slash line for 2016. This isn’t exactly the guy you expect to jam an exclamation point upon your unexpected ninth-inning fallback.
But that’s exactly what Pennington did. Bang! He drove a knee-high slider to the bottom of the right center field wall. Trout zipped across the plate and hung a quick left turn to join the basepath party building.
“It will probably only happen a few times a year,” Pennington said after the game, “but it’s a good one.” The dear boy. The Angels hadn’t won a game in which they trailed by six or better since 1986, when they upended the Tigers to win 13-12. The final blow then, too, was by a middle infielder known for a papier mache bat, Dick Schofield, who crunched a grand salami off Tiger closer Guillermo Hernandez.
Sunday’s was only the second such comeback win in the Angels’ entire history. The last time they sent seven across the plate? Go back to strike-shortened 1994, when they did it to the Blue Jays to force a tenth inning and win it there, 14-13.
“It gives you a lot of momentum,” said Pennington. “Two or three weeks from now, when we’re down by three or four runs in the seventh, it’s a feeling that you’ve had before, where you’ve come back and won that game. So much of this game is between the ears, that when you do this type of thing a couple of times, you start to believe you can, and then it happens more frequently.”
The Mariners—looking back longingly on Robinson Cano’s tiebreaking three-run bomb in the third and two-run double in the fifth, not to mention Mitch Haniger’s one-out bomb in the seventh to make the seven-run lead—just hope it doesn’t happen to them. Opening the season 1-6 wasn’t exactly in their plans.
But neither was six earned runs on five hits and not surviving the fifth in the plans of Angels starter Matt Shoemaker, on the comeback trail since his 2016 was finished with a shot in the head from another Mariner, Kyle Seager.
“Those guys picked me up huge,” Shoemaker said when it was over. “Made a really, really sour day turn really sweet.” The kind of sweet that was too infrequent for the Angels recently.