Unlikely hero Mathis lifts Angels

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Jeff Mathis(notes) stood half a clubhouse away, his ears red and a bit oversized, his words Florida panhandle simple, his beard somewhere between grown and not, his mom and grandma waiting patiently outside.

Torii Hunter(notes) looked over and couldn't help but laugh at the scene. The Los Angeles Angels' part-time catcher in the middle of October, Mathis was nobody anybody knew much about before he hit that slider, "Or a cutter, I don't know which," Mathis said, and Howie Kendrick(notes) raced those 270 feet that ended in a pop-up slide into his shortstop's arms and all of Mathis' teammates hauled him down in center field.

The Angels were 11th-inning Game 3 American League Championship Series winners by a 5-4 score, the Yankees were first-time losers in the 2009 postseason, and somebody finally had taken advantage of the fact Jeff Mathis had been trying to win games for them for three days.

He'd doubled and was left on base in the 12th inning of Game 2, which the Yankees won in the 13th. And he'd doubled and eventually was forced out at home in the 10th inning of Game 3, when the Angels had two on with none out, and then had the bases loaded with one out, only to have Mariano Rivera(notes) give them nothing.

That's doubles in three consecutive at-bats for a guy who came to the series a career .200 hitter, now can't keep the baseball off the barrel of his bat and has little chance of starting Game 4 against CC Sabathia(notes). The Angels still don't have a hit with a runner in scoring position in forever, and they still don't look anything like the team that rolled out of a 97-win regular season and then swept the Red Sox, but it looks like Vladimir Guerrero(notes) is going to hit a little, and so is Howie Kendrick, and maybe they can hold off the Yankees for another day or two, because Mathis just saved their postseason.

"Those are the guys," Hunter said, "who become heroes in the postseason."

Actually, there was a lot of brow-furrowing outside the Angels' dugout when Mathis (who didn't start the game; the more accomplished hitter Mike Napoli(notes) did) hit his double to open the 10th inning and didn't come out for a pinch-runner. The Angels are carrying three catchers. Later it became evident manager Mike Scioscia didn't run for Mathis because he'd need him for the big hit in the next inning.

Not really.

But, (and this is how an extra-inning playoff game and a playoff series can find an unsuspecting guy) Scioscia would have run for Mathis had Yankees manager Joe Girardi not immediately summoned Rivera, leaving Scioscia with some doubt the Angels would score the game-winner just then, even with his best hitters coming up. And, indeed, Scioscia thought, if the game wound into more and more innings, like Saturday night's game had, his preference was to have Mathis catching them.

"I didn't think about it," Mathis said. "I mean, we have some guys over there that are faster than me. I ain't that slow. Or I like to think I ain't."

It didn't hurt them, turned out, because Chone Figgins(notes), Torii Hunter and Guerrero opted for the strategy of rolling seven-hoppers to Gold Glove first baseman Mark Teixeira(notes), which didn't work out great for them.

Anyway, that's why Mathis – and not No. 3 catcher Bobby Wilson(notes) – was in the batter's box 4 hours and 20 minutes into Game 3, with Kendrick on first base with his third hit of the game.

Suddenly going through pitchers like Jim Leyland goes through mid-game cigarettes, Joe "Smoke 'em if you got 'em" Girardi had brought in Alfredo Aceves(notes) to pitch to Kendrick and then to Mathis, and now the Yankees might actually have a fight on their hands.

Because just when it looked like Guerrero would never take another pitch, no matter where it was thrown, he began his first two plate appearances by taking ball one and ball two, singling in the first and walked in the second. Then he homered in the sixth inning off Andy Pettitte(notes), a two-run shot that tied the score, 3-3.

And just when it appeared the Angels might never get out of A-Rod's way (he homered in the fourth and flew to the track in the fifth), they had closer Brian Fuentes(notes) walk him intentionally with two out and the score tied, 4-4, in the ninth.

And, then, when it seemed their next big hit would come in Tempe, Ariz., next March, up stepped Mathis, who'd been trying to hit them into a win on two coasts. Five years ago, Mathis had shown up in the big leagues a prospect as much for his bat as for his defense. A terrific athlete, he'd been recruited to play quarterback for Florida State. But it's different here, and he's never hit much, though not for lack of trying. He's 26, so there's time left, but that wasn't important late Monday afternoon.

What was important, what was so great for him, was the sound that ball made on his bat, and the sight of Kendrick taking one wide turn and then another, two outs, running for their season.

"I thought it was far enough," Mathis said. "Then I saw [left fielder Jerry Hairston Jr.(notes)] running and I thought, 'Good gracious.' He was closer than I thought, a lot closer than I liked."

Backing up Hairston, center fielder Melky Cabrera(notes) gathered the ball and heaved it toward home, and it chased Kendrick all the way to the plate. On his way off the field, Mathis pointed into the stands. In from Florida, his mother and grandmother had not missed a game this postseason, not through the cold or the rain or then finally the sunshine, and they waved back.

"Obviously," he said, "it's the biggest hit of my life."

The rest of the Angels knew it only as the biggest hit of the day, which would do.

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