In the bottom of the 10th inning of Game Two of the American League Championship Series, Anaheim Angels backup catcher Jeff Mathis clocked a ringing leadoff double into the left-field gap against New York Yankees reliever Phil Hughes. After the double, Fox announcers Joe Buck and Tim McCarver implored the Angels to pinch-run the faster Reggie Wilits for Mathis. It seemed like a good decision, as the Angels carry a third catcher, Bobby Wilson, on their roster. But manager Mike Scioscia stuck with Mathis.
Erick Aybar, trying to bunt him over to third, did so, and reached himself after Yankees closer Mariano Rivera threw away an attempt to get Mathis. An out later, the Angels loaded the bases, but they couldn’t push Mathis across home-plate, as first baseman Mark Teixeira gobbled up two groundballs to thwart the rally. Mathis walked back to the dugout as the Angels missed a great opportunity to win their first game of the series and avoid being sent to the brink.
They couldn’t drive him in, so the next inning, he sought out to be the hero. David Robertson, armed with a lively and deceptive fastball, relieved Rivera to begin the 11th, and disposed of power hitters Kendry Morales and Juan Rivera rather easily. The Yankees had two pitchers left in their bullpen, and Robertson had thrown one-and-one-third innings in Game Two, so it was presumed that Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi would leave him in for as long as he could go. Questionably, he checked his data charts, saw that Kendrick was 1-2 in his career against the currently dominant Robertston, walked up the dugout steps and out to the mound to take him out. It was a curious move, but Girardi believed Alfredo Aceves was better served to face Kendrick.
Kendrick, who already had a busy day at the plate, socked a 3-1 pitch up the middle. It glanced off Aceves’ outstretched glove, then trickled under second baseman Robinson Cano’s. He rounded first as the Angels crowd clapped and pounded their "thundersticks" together. Mathis strode to the plate, and Aceves stayed in the game to face him.
The game didn’t start the way the Angels wanted. Jered Weaver, their 16-game winner during the regular season who dominated the Boston Red Sox over seven-and-one-third innings the series prior, took the hill. He started Yankees leadoff hitter, shortstop, and captain Derek Jeter off with a fastball that missed outside, another that missed similarly, then another, grooved down the heart of the plate, that he didn’t get back. Instead, he watched Jeter connect solidly and deposit the pitch into the left-field seats.
New York, a team that clubbed a record 244 homers this season, benefited from two more, solo-shots by Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon in the fourth and fifth. The Yankees were in business and, considering postseason-proven Andy Pettitte had cruised through the first four frames, primed to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.
The Angels, which scored three runs in the first two games, awoke in the bottom of the fifth, sporting some lumber of their own. After Kendry Morales, who hit 34 homers this season, helplessly struck out to begin the frame, Kendrick, their stocky 26-year-old second-baseman who hit 10, crushed a fastball into Anaheim’s bullpen to put the previously befuddled Angels on the board.
Their 39-year-old reliever, and 16-year veteran, Darren Oliver replaced Weaver and breezed through the top of the sixth, keeping the deficit at two with the top of the order due in the bottom.
The inning didn’t start promising, as Chone Figgins continued his offensive woes by grounding out against Pettitte. Bobby Abreu, who was previously hitless in the series, stepped in, and given his ineptness, it appeared safe to assume that he would go down quietly and put all the pressure on Torri Hunter. To my surprise, the usually dependable Abreu, figured out how to hit again, lining a single into right-field.
Hunter bailed the wilting Pettitte out by swinging at the first, and lazily flying it to right-fielder Nick Swisher. The Angels now desperately needed something out of Vladimir Guerrero, who like Figgins, Abreu, and Hunter, had struggled in the first two games of the series. The long-legged, dreadlocked, and free swinging Dominican, one of the few that doesn’t wear batting gloves, had to deliver.
Guerrero, who in 92 previous postseason had only one home-run and a .248 batting average, was due for a big hit. An extremely aggressive hitter, he fouled off the first pitch, but then showed some patience, working the count even at 2-2 before Girardi jogged to the mound to have a conference with Pettitte and catcher Jorge Posada. He didn’t talk directly to Pettitte and instead conversed exclusively to Posada. He presumably told him what he wanted the pitch to be and where to throw it. Posada shook his head in agreement, as did Pettitte. Whatever they decided upon, however, wasn’t thrown where they expected.
Instead of going in way inside, way outside, or deceiving Guerrero with an offspeed pitch, Pettitte threw a straight fastball right down the pipe. Guerrero made him pay, launching the mistake over the left-field wall , tying the game.
The Angels had all the momentum and fed off of it by untying the game in the ensuing inning. Hefty right-hander Joba Chamberlain relieved Pettitte with one out in the seventh, and was greeted unkindly by Kendrick. He continued his hot-hitting, lining the first pitch into left-center field, and hustled to third base for a triple . Pinch-hitter Maicer Izturis followed by executing the fundamentals, plating Kendrick with a sacrifice-fly .
That 4-3 lead was short-lived, however. Hideki Matsui walked to begin the eighth and was replaced by speedy Brett Gardner. Expecting him to try and steal second, Scioscia ordered a pitch-out after a called strike. His decision was a brilliant one, as Mathis gunned a strike to Aybar, who swipe-tagged Gardner for a big first out. It was not only an important out because it erased Gardner from the basepaths, but because Posada tagged a homer to dead center two pitches later.
Hunter watched the ball sail over the fence, then paused at the wall in disbelief. He was deflated, as were the rest of the Angels, but Mathis would soon turn his and his teammates frowns upside down.
The 26-year-old watched a lifeless fastball from Aceves miss for ball-one, then expected the same pitch and guessed right. This one had a little more velocity and a little more of the plate. Mathis’ eyes lit up as it neared. He extended his arms and swung with all his might. The ball soared out to left-field and kept carrying and carrying. Jerry Hairston, who had replaced Damon in left, sped back to the wall, leaped, and crashed into the padding. The ball avoided him and bounced off the wall. Kendrick ran as fast as he could, and touched third as Melky Cabrera corralled the ricochet.
He closed in on home as Cabrera heaved the ball in to the infield. As the ball reached Posada a third of the way up the first-base line, he slid safely, and was immediately mobbed by his teammates. The Angels had won the game they couldn’t afford to lose.
Mathis pumped his fist and screamed in jubilation as he reached second base. His heroics weren’t expected, given his porous offensive play throughout his four-year career, but the postseason is a whole new ballgame. Mathis, whom many wanted to be lifted for a pinch-runner earlier in the game, was the unlikeliest of heroes, giving his team life in the American League Championship Series against the mighty Yankees.