By Adam Dodge and Geoff Bilau - AngelsWin.com Columnists
It was just one swing out of hundreds of thousands in the Angels’ 47-year history, but it produced three of the biggest runs and, in one instant, shifted an entire franchise’s momentum. With one swing, hopeless became hopeful.
When Scott Spiezio coaxed that ball over the short wall in right field, just far enough to elude the reach of Giants right fielder Reggie Sanders, there was an immediate sense that it would prove the most important hit in Angels history. Around 24 hours later, it was no longer just a sense — it was truth.
Game 6 of the 2002 World Series was do or die for the Anaheim Angels, who were facing elimination, down three games to two against the San Francisco Giants.
Entering the bottom of the seventh inning, with the Giants leading 5-0, the Angels appeared prepped for their casket. The team had shown little life offensively, thoroughly stifled by starter Russ Ortiz, and the Giants’ greatest strength, their bullpen, rested and ready.
Garret Anderson led off the seventh inning with routine groundball to second base. The Angels had just eight outs remaining to prevent a very disappointing end to their season.
The next batter, Troy Glaus, finally gave the Angels and their fans something to cheer about when he singled to left field on Ortiz’s next pitch. And when Brad Fullmer followed with a single of his own, the Angels had the beginnings of a rally.
What happened next proved to be one of the most second-guessed managerial decisions in World Series history — and that’s putting it mildly.
With two on and one out, Giants’ manager Dusty Baker made his way out to the mound. The trip was no doubt to talk strategy, and since it was late into an elimination game it made sense that the manager would forgo sending the pitching coach on such a critical mound visit. After all, Ortiz had dominated the Angels for 6.1 innings and had not yet thrown 100 pitches. Surely Baker would allow him to work through a little bit of trouble in the seventh, especially with a five-run lead.
But Baker had other thoughts. To everyone’s surprise, he raised his right hand toward the bullpen. He was bringing in right-handed fireballer Felix Rodriguez to face previously anonymous Angels first baseman Scott Spiezio.
Baker had pulled his starting pitcher, though he’d not given up a run while scattering just four hits and walking two. What’s more, with Ortiz already a step away from the pitching rubber and on his way to the dugout, Baker reached back, symbolically grabbing his pitcher’s right arm to stop him. A curious Ortiz accepted a gift — the “game ball,” which he no doubt deserved, but that the ball was given to him on the mound for millions to see was what created controversy. It no doubt stuck in the craw of the Angels and their fans.
Spiezio would have his hands full. Rodriguez was one of the best relievers in baseball, as evidenced by the .163 average he allowed to opposing batters during the 2002 postseason. Spiezio, however, was working on a special October of his own, one that saw him tie the postseason record for RBI with 19.
After a first pitch ball, Spiezio fouled off three consecutive Rodriguez fastballs perfectly placed on the outside corner. Rodriguez evened the count at 2-2 when he missed with his fifth pitch. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Spiezio put a great swing on a fastball, fouling it straight back, prompting a rare prophetic statement from FOX announcer Tim McCarver, who cautioned, “If you make a mistake away, it’s a single. If you make a mistake in, it’s 5-3.”
After Rodriguez’ next pitch went wide, making the count full, he did, indeed, miss in. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Spiezio took a low and in fastball high and deep into the right field corner. Sanders drifted back methodically, tracking the towering fly ball. When it left the bat, it appeared Spiezio just missed it, but the ball continued to carry, taking Sanders all the way to the warning track; then over it and to the wall. He reached up and over the short wall, but to no avail. The ball had disappeared into a mob of suddenly reinvigorated Angels fans.
Spiezio, who stopped his trot at first base to watch the fate of his hit — to wish and to pray — showed little emotion as he restarted his jog around the bases, a subtle fist shake sufficing.
The fans were another story. Edison Field exploded with roars and cheers, which could no doubt be heard miles away. The Angels — a team of grinders, who had come back time and time again throughout the regular and post-seasons — had trimmed the Giants’ once seemingly insurmountable lead to 5-3. And though its not the kind of thing that shows up on the scoreboard, had stolen away from the Giants every last bit of momentum.
From hopeless to hopeful; and following the Angels’ half of the eighth and the Giants’ futile ninth, from hopeful to absolutely sure the Angels would now win the series.
But then, it was only one swing, right?