Two defensive plays the Mariners almost certainly don’t make last year enabled them to skirt disaster Sunday and hold on for a 5-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels.
Both came in the eighth inning when the Angels were threatening to erase a four-run deficit in a comeback that seemed too similar to the final game of the Mariners’ last visit to Angel Stadium.
That was April 9 when they blew a six-run lead in the ninth inning in an appalling 10-9 loss that still haunts whenever a late lead seems to be slipping away. Here it was happening again.
The Angels were cuffing around ultra-reliable Nick Vincent, who had not allowed a run in 28 of his previous 29 appearances. Four straight singles produced one run and had the bases loaded with no outs.
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Cameron Maybin then sent a drive to deep center that seemed ticketed for extra bases in until Guillermo Heredia sprinted back, leaped and caught the ball on the warning track.
Instead of a two- or (more likely) three-run double or triple, Maybin settled for a sacrifice fly.
"Off the bat," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "I didn’t think there was any way he was going to get it, but he had a really clean route and covered a lot of ground. That’s as good a catch as you’re going to see."
Heredia said he never doubted he would catch it.
"Oh, yes," he nodded.
A year ago, does Leonys Martin catch that ball? Martin is notoriously wall-shy (whereas Heredia is fearless) and often depended on speed to compensate for non-direct routes to the ball. As Scioscia noted, Heredia took a "clean route."
Anything less, and it’s unlikely he makes the catch.
But Heredia did make it, and the Mariners now had an escape hatch to the inning. Marc Rzepczynski replaced Vincent and retired Kole Calhoun on a pop for the second out.
Here, the Mariners caught a break. With reigning MVP Mike Trout still sidelined by a thumb injury, the Los Angeles lineup turned to Albert Pujols who, while still dangerous, is no Trout. (Who is?)
The Mariners summoned closer Edwin Diaz to face Pujols and…well, maybe it’s true, as Diaz later claimed, that he never thought about that April 9 game, when he was on the mound as the Angels scored six two-out runs in their comeback.
With runners on second and third, Pujols sent a grounder to short that Jean Segura said took a "tricky hop." Segura bobbled the ball, then recovered but launched an offline throw to first.
First baseman Danny Valencia shifted his feet — he likened it to an NFL wide receiver keeping his feet inbounds on a catch — and held the base while reaching for Segura’s throw before falling to the ground.
If Valencia doesn’t hold the base, two runs score because Ben Revere kept running from second. The Angels challenged the "out" call, but the replays confirmed Valencia had his foot on the base when he caught the ball.
"I was pretty nervous when the review came out," Valencia said. "It was a big play. It happened so fast that you feel like you (held the base), but it happened so quick that you really don’t know."
What we do know is it’s unlikely that either Adam Lind or Dae-Ho Lee make that play a year ago. Valencia’s athletic play ended the inning, and Diaz breezed through a one-two-three ninth with two strikeouts.
Those April 9 ghosts faded away. At least a little.
Three takeaways from Sunday’s victory:
***Paxton’s progress: The late defensive heroics overshadowed James Paxton’s best start since late April. He retired the first 16 Angels and gave up just one run and two hits before exiting after 6 1/3 innings.
All without his best stuff.
"I didn’t have my best fastball today," he said. "Zee (catcher Mike Zunino) did a great job back there of mixing pitches. We used the changeup a lot more. That got me some big outs."
Facing the Angels probably helped. Paxton has a 2.04 ERA in nine career starts against them.
***Cano’s soaring production: Second baseman Robinson Cano insists he’s not disappointed that he wasn’t selected for the All-Star Game.
"No," he said. "Why disappointed? What can I do? Just be ready for the second half. Not disappointed. If I was hitting .300? Maybe."
Cano is batting .284 but, after hitting a three-run homer in Sunday’s victory, now has 17 homers and 60 RBIs. That puts him on pace to finish the season with 33 homers and 117 RBIs.
"It’s great to see him heating up," manager Scott Servais said. "I have a feeling we’ll look up at the end of the year, and (his numbers will be there). He’s on pace to do what he does."
***The hitting machine: Ben Gamel is now just one plate appearance shy of qualifying for the American League batting race, but he’s no longer the leading hitter on his team.
Segura went 4-for-5 on Sunday and raised his average to .338. Gamel went 0-for-4 with a walk and dropped to .336. Segura is still 10 plate appearances shy of qualifying for the league lead.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners