Hunter makes his presence felt
Angels OF steps up in all phases to help L.A. to a ninth-inning win over Indians
He's the highest-paid player on the club, the best defensive center fielder in the league and the most universally well-liked man in the clubhouse. It's one thing to help talk a teammate through a slump, hit a tying home run or turn a double into an out.
It's another thing to avert the truth.
A reporter didn't have time to finish a question about Shin-Soo Choo's two-hop throw from right field when Hunter cut him off. Replays indicated Asdrubal Cabrera's swipe tag hit Hunter in the back well before he reached the bag and sparked the winning rally.
"I'm not going to answer that one," Hunter said.
Not verbally, anyway. Hunter rolled his eyes.
"He said I was safe, so I was safe," Hunter said.
In a season in which the Angels just keep waiting for their team to arrive, Hunter stopped waiting and did something about it in Wednesday's 4-3 win over the Cleveland Indians. Until Wednesday, the Angels had been waiting for a hitter other than Kendry Morales to take over a game.
Hunter couldn't have done more to facilitate this one: He hit the tying three-run home run after the Angels had hacked blindly against Jake Westbrook pitching through the shadows for six innings. He sparked the winning rally by defying Choo's arm (right or wrong) and reaching second. He eventually scored the winner on Howie Kendrick's well-placed push bunt.
The Angels had only six hits, five that weren't bunted, and Hunter had three of them.
They love the job Hunter does mentoring younger players, representing the organization in the community and speaking with the media. But this is the kind of leadership they really like to see. Wednesday's sixth-inning blast -- on a pitch Hunter says he never saw -- ended a string of 10 games when he had produced just one RBI.
"Torii did as much as a player could do today," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
Hunter often makes as big an impact with his glove as with his bat, but his bid to steal a double from Austin Kearns in the second inning was broken up by the center-field wall. Hunter had the ball for a split second before his glove hit the wall and the ball popped out.
Scioscia had been ejected in the third inning for arguing balls and strikes, so bench coach Ron Roenicke was managing when Cleveland brought in Chris Perez to pitch to Howie Kendrick with runners on first and third with two outs in the ninth.
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Roenicke noticed the infielders were scant steps from the outfield grass, so he relayed word to third base coach Dino Ebel to get Kendrick the bunt sign. If he thought he could push the ball past the pitcher, give it a shot.
Kendrick didn't wait, bunting the first pitch past Perez to second baseman Luis Valbuena, who had no chance to throw him out. The young Indians looked stunned.
Hunter scored the winning run from third on the "walk-off bunt." It happens from time to time. Scioscia remembers a few years ago when Eric Owens of the San Diego Padres got one down against the Angels.
"If it works, it looks great. If it doesn't, then everybody thinks, 'What the heck is he doing there?' " Kendrick said. "It worked today and we got the win."
Hideki Matsui nearly fell down while jumping out of the way of a bouncing pitch by Westbrook in the second inning. To keep his balance, Matsui reached out his right hand -- still grasping the bat -- as if to steady himself. Plate umpire Joe West appealed to third base umpire Rob Drake and Drake called it a swing.
That was the call that got Scioscia ejected.
"He can't argue balls and strikes," West said. "He can't even question it."
Scioscia was far from repentant after the game.
"In 35 years, I've never seen anything close to that being called a swing," Scioscia said.
Matsui said it was a first for him, too.
Hunter talked before the game about how difficult it was going to be picking up the late movement on Westbrook's sinker as he worked from the shadows of late afternoon. Wednesday was the first of six games this season at Angel Stadium that begin at 4:05 p.m.
A few hours later, Hunter looked like a prophet.
The Angels didn't have a hit until Hunter had a two-out single in the fourth. They didn't sniff a rally until an error on a grounder in the fifth and they didn't score off Westbrook -- who has struggled this year -- until Hunter's home run.
It's fair to say the mid-afternoon starts won't be popular with Angels hitters.
"He was pretty filthy. Guys were coming in saying, 'I didn't see any of that,' " Hunter said. "But you've got to keep grinding, keep battling."
By the numbers
When Ervin Santana struck out Russell Branyan looking in the sixth inning, it was the 715th career strikeout for Santana. That nudged him into the top 10 on the Angels' all-time strikeout list, past Kirk McCaskill. Assuming Santana stays healthy this year, he should have no trouble moving past Andy Messersmith (768) and he would have a good chance at catching Rudy May (844) and Dean Chance (857), which would leave him behind Mark Langston (1,112) in seventh place. The all-time leader, of course, is Nolan Ryan (2,416 as an Angel).
Quote of the day
"That call was mind-boggling." Scioscia on Drake's swing call on Matsui.
The Angels have an off-day Thursday and travel to Detroit, where they begin a three-game series with the Tigers on Friday.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.