A wild opossum, some Yasiel Puig theatrics and some late-inning heroics kept the AL West race between the Athletics and Angels tight after a crazy Monday night.
The A's may own the best record and run differential in baseball, but a sluggish 10-10 stretch accompanied by a 14-7 run from the Angels trimmed the gap in the AL West to a single game. For awhile on Monday night, it appeared that Oakland's run as the sole occupants of the division lead would end at 99 days, but then things took a turn for the weird.
In Los Angeles, the Angels opened their three-game Freeway Series against the Dodgers by pouncing on Zack Greinke for four first-inning runs, keyed by back-to-back doubles from Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, a pair of wild pitches and a throwing error by Hanley Ramirez. Although they loaded the bases against Garrett Richards in the second inning, the Dodgers couldn't buy a run, and they fell even further behind when Josh Hamilton bashed a solo homer in the sixth inning.
Erick Aybar followed Hamilton's homer with a single, and two batters later, David Freese smoked a ball into the right-centerfield gap, where Yasiel Puig made a great catch-and-throw spin move that nearly doubled Aybar off of first base. Puig followed the play with a Dikembe Mutombo-like finger wag — not his first — and the gesture was playfully returned by Aybar. Several Vines of the exchange hit Twitter.
Fast-forward to the eighth inning, where Pujols greeted reliever Carlos Frias — making his major league debut — with a single. Hamilton followed with a flyball to centerfield, but while Puig hauled it in, he momentarily forgot about the runner on first. Pujols seized the opportunity, tagging up and racing to second base, giving Puig a dose of his own medicine. Aybar followed with another flyball to center, but this time Puig was ready, daring Pujols to take third by waving his glove in a "come on" gesture. The slugger waved back at him, and after the end of the inning, imitated Puig's glove wave and continued to gesture. Here's the entire sequence:
The Angels' 5-0 lead held up, with a dominant Richards going the distance for a five-hit, nine-strikeout shutout that wrapped up the game in a neat two hours and 49 minutes and pulled them to within half a game of the A's.
At that point at O.co Coliseum, the A’s were deadlocked in a 2-2 tie with the Rays. That score held through nine, and after Ryan Cook set the Rays down in order in the top of the 10th inning, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon called upon Grant Balfour — who saved 62 games for the A's while helping them win back-to-back AL West titles in 2012-13 — to make his first appearance at O.co since departing via free agency. Boisterous fans in rightfield who had waited for just such an occasion paid tribute to the ex-closer's entry with a "Balfour Rage" as Metallica's "One" (his entry music) played:
Following the tribute, Balfour induced Albert Callaspo to line out, and then a surprise guest showed up: An opossum (not a possum, as others have said) roaming in foul territory near the leftfield warning track. No, really:
While not as disgusting as the more famous and even less welcome Coliseum guest — raw sewage — the marsupial quickly achieved totem status: Rally Possum [sic]. Sam Fuld followed the creature’s appearance with a single and a steal of second. John Jaso went to a full count against Balfour and tried to check his swing on 3-2. Home plate umpire CB Bucknor ruled that he didn't go around, a questionable call, and after first base umpire Quinn Wolcott overruled Tampa Bay's appeal, Maddon was tossed for arguing balls and strikes, though he came out onto the field to give Wolcott an earful before departing. Jaso walked, as did Josh Donaldson to load the bases. As Brandon Moss battled Balfour, Josh Reddick sought further talismans on the A's bench:
Moss struck out, but Derek Norris, who fell behind 0-2, followed with a game-winning single:
That earned him a complimentary pie in the face/Gatorade shower from his teammates and retained Oakland's narrow lead in the AL West. We can only hope Tuesday night's action provides as much memorable drama, though any hope of Puig meeting the Rally Possum — whom we hope is only viral in the figurative sense instead of the literal one — will have to wait until the postseason.