TOP OF THE NINTH: ANGELS 9 (6) – 7 MARINERS
With one swing of the bat, Albert Pujols became the one-man big inning. He took the Angels from 7-6 down to 9-7 up—with a single hit far bigger than any whole inning prior—continuing his legacy as the last guy you’d want to pitch to with a game on the line, no matter his age, no matter his recent stats. The guy who was considered one of the best all-time, in St. Louis, who’d fallen off some in recent years.
He’s still got it.
— Angels (@Angels) May 15, 2016
What came before all that, with the Angels down 2-1, was a a big inning of their own—five runs in the 7th. A home run from Johnny Giavotella, an RBI single from Yunel Escobar, a two-run homer from Kole Calhoun, a solo shot from the great Mike Trout.
Then, the Mariners brought it to 7-6.
And they opt for Steve Cishek on the mound for the 9th, to wrap things up. He’s wearing high socks and stirrups, pitching to Yunel Escobar, against a team five games behind in the AL West standings, about to put another game between them.
1-2 count to Escobar, with a pitch way outside, that’s described by one of the TV guys, “like a wild frisbee throw in the park.”
The Angels have been swept twice in a row, having lost to both the Rays and Cardinals. Now, they’ve broken the slump to beat the Mariners in game one the day before, looking for the start of a streak.
A man in a moose costume runs around on top of the away-team dugout, the Mariners’ mascot, whipping up the crowd into a half-assed cheer. Escobar, meanwhile, works a full count. Hits a looper into right field, jammed on the pitch, and Seth Smith runs it down for the first out on a nice catch.
The fans all throw their arms up in a big, unified hooray. A comeback win on the horizon. Then, the screws start coming loose, bit by bit, before half the ballpark even realizes it.
Kole Calhoun comes up to the plate—whose name is a bit of a tongue-twister—with pine tar smeared all over his helmet decal, last year’s AL Gold Glove winner for right-field.
The pull-shift is put on, the M’s infielders drifting over to the first-base half of the field, Dae-Ho Lee all the way to the line.
Cishek bends over into a low crouch on the mound, waiting for the signs. 1-2 count to Calhoun, with the crowd on their feet, clapping in unison. Cishek winds up with his semi-submarine, sidewinder delivery.
It could be their biggest win of the season, coming off a run that slingshotted them from last place into first.
The ball flies the 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to home, spinning, curving on a wicked path, from high and outside to low and in, Cishek’s follow-through bringing both feet down onto the front of the mound, the ball arrives at home as Calhoun starts his swing.
And it keeps curving. Curving. Into Calhoun’s toes, smacking the end of his back foot, a red and white ball onto red and white cleats, as he checks his swing and points at the foot: “I’ve been hit!”
Now, we’ve got a rally.
Mike Trout comes up, who’d already hit a home run in his last at-bat, the final blow of that five-run seventh inning.
He lashes a line-drive base hit to left, scorched off the bat, on a fastball down and inside.
The pitching coach for Seattle comes out to visit Cishek, with no one yet throwing in the bullpen. Albert Pujols is lumbering up to the plate. The best baseball Albert of all time, handily edging out Albert Belle and Al Kaline, Al Spalding.
It’s an 0-1 count, a low strike. Then 1-1. Pujols with the rigid form, with a few practice half-swings as he sets up, knees bent.
In a stretch through the mid-2000s, Pujols had a stretch of annual batting average numbers that now sound nearly impossible: .331, .327, .357, .327–and over .300 for his first ten years in the league. Then: a .299. A .285. And in the last two years: .272, .244, on a downward spiral with solid but no longer hall-of-fame numbers. This year, in the early going: .212.
I’m losing my edge, Pujols thinks to himself, waiting for the next pitch. The kids are coming up from behind. I’m losing my edge. But I was there…
A moment later, on the third pitch, he hits one. To left-field, toward the foul pole. A fastball left up and inside.
“Oh boy,” says the Seattle TV play-by-play guy. “Long drive, way back….”
Steve Cishek sits down on the mound, a crouch just lower than he’d been doing in his windup routine, collapsed on the dirt, watching the ball fly up, out, over the left-field grass in about 0.5 seconds, into the upper deck, onto the Edgar Martinez EDGAR’S landing, taking the lead out from under him.
Mr. Steal Your Lead 🙌https://t.co/53HbRktI4z
— Angels (@Angels) May 15, 2016
Pujols cruises around the bases. Calhoun scores. Trout scores. And then, Pujols himself, touching home plate, the ninth run of the game, with two-handed high-fives from his two teammates, and a new combination of respect and fear forged in the hearts of every fuming, sobbing, head-scratching fan in Safeco Field.
The Angels win 9-7. They’re still behind in the AL West, with a slew of injuries hurting their cause.
But it’s a start. King Albert’s on board. Back into greatness.