ANAHEIM -- A classic baseball game between a first and second-place team on a warm Southern California afternoon may have turned on one single pitch. One big pitch by reliever Kevin Jepsen against one of the hottest hitters in the game may have been the crucial moment in the Angels' 3-2 win over the Rangers on Saturday afternoon at Angel Stadium. "Usually the best team wins, but both teams were good out there today," Rangers outfielder Marlon Byrd said. "They were just a little bit better."
Jepsen was in his eighth-inning confrontation with Michael Young. He had just come in to relieve Jered Weaver, who had started the inning with a walk to Taylor Teagarden. Elvis Andrus followed with a single and Omar Vizquel bunted the runners to second and third. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, trying to protect a 3-2 lead, then brought Jepsen in to face Young, who entered the game with a 14-game hitting streak and a .413 batting average since the All-Star break. Marlon Byrd was on deck. "All we have to do is put the ball in play there," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I felt good with Young and Byrd right there." Jepsen threw strike one, then missed with two pitches. That left the count 2-and-1. Then came the big pitch of the at-bat, a 98-mph fastball that just clipped the low, outside corner. "I'm definitely not swinging at that pitch and risk rolling it over," Young said. "It was a good pitch." If Jepsen misses with that pitch, it's 3-and-1. Instead it's 2-and-2. Jepsen then missed with a changeup, but then got Young to swing and miss at a fastball up and away for strike three. "I was just trying to tick the ball, foul it off and keep the at-bat alive," Young said. For whatever it is worth, Young, going into Saturday's game, is hitting .423 this season in situations after the count goes to 3-1 and .308 after the count goes 2-2. Overall he is a .205 hitter with two strikes but all the Rangers needed there was a grounder or fly ball. "You just don't see Michael Young not putting the ball in play in a situation like that," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "If Young was going to hit him, he was going to hit Kevin's pitch. That was not an easy situation at all. To see him do it is remarkable." Jepsen wasn't through. He still had Byrd, who entered the game hitting .386 with runners in scoring position and two outs for the season. Byrd saw three fastballs. He swung and missed at two of them coming in at 99 mph. Jepsen threw one more at 100 and Byrd hit into the air in right for the third out. "Usually I'm upset when I don't get the job done, but Jepsen just stuffed the ball down my throat," Byrd said. "He made some unbelievable pitches." "I came in with the attitude that I didn't want anybody to hit the ball," Jepsen said. "I had so much adrenaline, I didn't have to worry about velocity -- it was going to be there." That was the Rangers' last best chance and they dropped to 4 1/2 games behind the Angels in the American League West. They remain one game behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card race. Rangers starter Kevin Millwood, making his first start in two weeks, went six innings and allowed two runs on nine hits and a walk while striking out six. A two-run home run by Hank Blalock gave him a 2-1 lead in the fifth, but Vladimir Guerrero tied it up in the bottom of the sixth with a home run to deep left. "I wasn't expecting to go out there and throw 120 pitches or anything like that," said Millwood, who has been sidelined with a strained left gluteus muscle. "I expected to pitch well and for the most part I felt like I did." Millwood left with the game tied at 2-2. Eddie Guardado took over in the seventh but Erick Aybar belted a 1-0 fastball over the left-field fence to put the Angels ahead. "Fastball up," Guardado said. "What else? Behind in the count to a non-home run hitter. What else could go wrong? No, I just got a fastball up. No matter who it is, home run hitter or not, you make a mistake against a good team like that and that's what happens." That might be a situation where Washington uses Neftali Feliz. But Washington wanted to stay away from his hard-throwing rookie after he threw 28 pitches on Friday night. "We're going to use him back-to-back but I didn't want to bring him in today," Washington said. "But Eddie can get guys out in those situations. He just left a pitch up and Aybar hit it." It was an afternoon in which one or two pitches made a huge difference and Jepsen made the biggest pitch of all.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.