By Joe Haakenson, AngelsWin.com Contributor -
GAME 63 - PIRATES AT ANGELS
ANAHEIM -- David Eckstein did it his way this time.
The Angels' 5-foot-7 shortstop is the first to say his major league-leading three grand slams this season were flukes, but the Edison Field crowd buzzed in anticipation when Eckstein stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and the game with the Pittsburgh Pirates tied at 4 in the seventh inning Wednesday night.
Eckstein ripped a line drive to center field, where the ball ricocheted off center fielder Chad Hermansen's left shin and got past right fielder Craig Wilson. By the time the smoke cleared Eckstein was on third with a three-run triple and the Angels were on their way to an 8-5 win in front of 17,096 fans.
With the win the Angels took two of three from the Pirates and remain one game behind first-place Seattle in the A.L. West.
Eckstein's exploits with the bases loaded this season have become well-known throughout baseball, but he has maintained that hitting the ball in the air is not his game. He has eight at-bats with the bases loaded this season, getting four hits (three homers and a triple).
``He's by far the most fundamentally sound player I've ever played with,'' Angels center fielder Darin Erstad said. ``He doesn't try to do too much and he knows what he wants to do. That's why he's so successful.''
Eckstein went into the game hitting .382 with runners in scoring position, ninth best in the American League.
``Even though it wasn't a grand slam,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, ''we'll take it.''
Angels reliever Ben Weber (3-2) pitched two innings in relief of starter Aaron Sele to get the win. Troy Percival pitched the ninth for his 15th save.
The Angels' winning rally started with Scott Spiezio's one-out walk. Spiezio went to second when Bengie Molina grounded out for the second out of the inning. After an intentional walk to Brad Fullmer, Orlando Palmeiro had an infield single to load the bases for Eckstein.
Eckstein got ahead in the count, 2-0, then took a strike. He lined the next pitch off Pirates reliever Brian Boehringer (3-2) to clear the bases and the Angels were on their way.
The Pirates played most of the game without manager Lloyd McClendon and bench coach Bill Virdon because both were ejected.
McClendon was ejected by home plate umpire Rick Reed after he complained that Scioscia was spending too much time arguing with first-base ump Tim Tschida in the fourth inning. McClendon argued that Scioscia's extended time on the field was hurting Pirates pitcher Joe Beimel, but it was McClendon that ended up feeling the hurt, getting ejected for the third time this season.
Virdon, a former major league manager for 13 seasons, was thrown out by Tschida for arguing a disputed call at first base in the sixth inning.
``It was pretty simple,'' Reed said. ''(McClendon) showed a definite lack of respect for this crew. Then, all of a sudden, he started getting off on stuff that happened last year. I wasn't aware there was anything that went on last year. I said, `We'll clean up the argument (with Scioscia).' But (McClendon) didn't want to listen. He just wanted to be abusive ... he decided that he was going to be loud, demonstrative and abusive, so he got what he deserved.''
The Angels jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second inning, getting a two-run double from Fullmer and an RBI single by Benji Gil. The contributions from Fullmer and Gil, who added another RBI single later in the game, were big on a night when Nos. 3 and 4 hitters Troy Glaus and Garret Anderson went a combined 1 for 9.
``We've got a solid lineup top to bottom,'' Fullmer said. ``Even though Troy and Garret didn't get pitches to hit, we've got guys that can come up with big hits.''
Sele, who got a no-decision, gave up four runs and seven hits in six innings.
ANAHEIM -- Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said his phone is ringing a lot more these days, and much of the time it's another GM on the other end of the line.
While Stoneman says the club is always looking to improve itself, a trade isn't always the best way to go about it. And besides, the club is doing well enough where too much tinkering can be a bad thing.
``The interesting thing about this club is that it's such a balanced club,'' Stoneman said. ``The approach we take is, if a player becomes available, what position does he play? If it's an improvement on what we have, we'll take a look at it.''
As of now the Angels' biggest area of concern is the bullpen. Set-up man Al Levine has struggled lately because of a sore shoulder. Donne Wall has been inconsistent all season and holds the worst ERA on the staff (6.43).
The Angels have an abundance of middle infielders with Benji Gil and Jose Nieves backing up starters David Eckstein and Adam Kennedy. But Stoneman said there's no reason to deal someone if they can improve themselves simply by going to their farm system for help.
At Triple-A Salt Lake, the Angels have Brendan Donnelly (4-0, 3.96 ERA) and Scot Shields (2-2, 3.06) pitching particularly well out of the bullpen.
``Especially with Al out we really haven't performed well out of the 'pen the last little while,'' Stoneman said. ``That's this week's easy focus, but next week's focus might be different. We were patient the first 20 games when we weren't going good, and then we totally caught fire. You have to ride the highs and lows. If a team looks at us to find what our glaring weakness is, we don't have one.''
Center fielder Darin Erstad was not in the starting lineup Wednesday, replaced by Julio Ramirez. Erstad missed seven games in late April because of a concussion, but Wednesday's day off was simply a chance to get him some rest. Erstad is hitting .189 (7 for 37) on the homestand.
``Like a lot of our guys, he's been playing a lot,'' manager Mike Scioscia said. ``We've got to stretch him out, and with the National League games it's tough to get him rest without getting him out of the lineup. This is meant to recharge him. We're definitely looking at the long haul.''
Angels hitters went into Wednesday's game with 298 strikeouts this season, the fewest in the majors. Scioscia said it's a reflection of the coaching staff's approach since the beginning of spring training.
``The emphasis on situational hitting is part of that,'' Scioscia said. ``With a two-strike approach you work to get a good pitch to hit and you work to get the count in your favor.''
After an off day today, the Angels begin their longest road trip of the year -- 14 games in four cities, starting Friday at Dodger Stadium. After three games against the Dodgers, the Angels will play three against the Cardinals, three against the Brewers and five against the Rangers.