ARLINGTON, Texas The Los Angeles Angels decided to challenge the best hitter in baseball when they didn't have to. Already trailing by four runs in the fourth inning, Angels manager Mike Scioscia allowed his ace, Jered Weaver, to pitch to Josh Hamilton with one out and runners on second and third.
Weaver may have thrown a no-hitter earlier this month, but he had just given up a grand slam to Nelson Cruz that gave the Rangers a 6-2 lead in the previous inning. This appeared to be a good spot for common sense to enter the conversation. Why challenge the most dangerous hitter in baseball when there's a vacancy at first base?
Weaver made Hamilton look bad in his first two plate appearances, getting him to chase high fastballs out of the strike zone. And after a visit to the mound, Scioscia seemed convinced that Weaver could handle Hamilton a third time. Perhaps it slipped his mind that Hamilton had entered Sunday's rubber match against the Angels with nine homers and 15 RBI for the week.
Hamilton looked at a first-pitch strike, a minor miracle for a man who rarely shows much patience at the plate. Weaver threw what Rangers manager Ron Washington believed was an inside change-up that never dipped. Weaver would later refer to it as a "pitcher's pitch," but Hamilton yanked his hands close to his body and drove the ball into right center field for a two-run double. Weaver hit the showers with his sense of humor intact as TV cameras caught him singing along with "Hit the Road Jack" as he walked toward the dugout. He matched a career high with eight runs allowed in his shortest outing (3 13 innings) since Aug. 14, 2009.
It's not like pitching to Adrian Beltre would've been a pleasant option, but he's certainly a much-better candidate to hit into a double play than Hamilton. The Angels fell victim to their own hubris in a game they desperately needed to win to stay within shouting distance of the Rangers in the A.L. West. They now trail the Rangers by eight games despite having played better over the past couple weeks.
Maybe at some point teams will start pitching around Hamilton. But on Sunday, Scioscia let two at bats affect his better judgment.
"The one guy I think Weaver was locked in on was Josh Hamilton," said the Angels manager. "He had a real good game plan going in. First two times up, obviously he did a great job. He felt real comfortable trying to get him to expand and unfortunately he wasn't able to do it in that situation.
"If the count had gone the wrong way, you might have changed it at 2-0, but I think definitely the way Weaver pitched him the first couple of times gave him confidence, and he just didn't execute it."
Washington showed Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera a ton of respect in last year's American League Championship Series, but he wasn't about to second-guess Scioscia. In very colorful fashion, he explained what was probably going through the Angels manager's mind.
"Those first two at bats, Weaver made Josh look awful," Washington told FOXSportsSouthwest.com. "And if he executes his pitches again, the manager looks smart. But with us, you have to pick your poison. If you walk Josh, then you have to deal with Beltre."
With three RBI on Sunday, Hamilton now has 44 through 35 games. Juan Gonzalez holds the team record with 46 RBI through the first 35 games of the 1998 season. Hamilton finished the week with nine homers and 18 RBI. It's getting to the point where a 2-for-5 performance with three RBI seems like a letdown because of the lack of a home run.
Washington has kept him grounded throughout this torrid start by constantly reminding him the slate is wiped clean after each game. Hamilton has a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown this season, but he doesn't sound like a man enamored by his own work. Asked if he was surprised at the Angels strategy in the fourth inning, Hamilton didn't hesitate.
"No. No. It didn't even cross my mind," he said of the possibility of being intentionally walked.
The Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has been a house of horrors for Weaver over the years. He's now 2-7 with a 5.21 ERA in 14 career starts. And Weaver has given 14 home runs in Arlington, which is five more than the next closest venue (Safeco Field in Seattle). He provided a pretty good explanation for why he lobbied to face Hamilton.
"You load the bases to get to Adrian Beltre? I mean, what are you going to do? These guys have got power up and down their lineup," said Weaver. "You've got Mike Napoli hitting seventh or eighth, or whatever he was hitting tonight. Like I said, there's no chance to breathe.
"Obviously, it would have been the smart play to walk Hamilton. I tried to expand the zone. The first pitch was a good pitch and the second pitch was in there even more than the first one, he was able to get the hands in somehow and drive it into right field. It's give or take. You face Hamilton who's obviously as hot as anybody in the league right now. If you walk him, then you have Adrian Beltre with the bases loaded. It's pick your poison, really."
The Angels chose poorly Sunday.