Pujols delivers and it doesn't matter

Albert Pujols came through with a ninth-inning hit Tuesday, but it wasn't enough to lift the Angels. Cal Sport Media/AP Images

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Albert Pujols dug in and glared at Oakland Athletics closer Grant Balfour. Mike Trout led off third base; Torii Hunter was at first. The Los Angeles Angels trailed by two with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth.

It was exactly the spot the Angels had envisioned having the game's most fearsome slugger in when they signed him to a 10-year, $240 million contract last winter.

This time Pujols delivered with a sharp RBI single to left field that cut the lead to 6-5. The Angel Stadium crowd roared. Pujols clapped his hands together as he rounded first base, then pointed to the sky. Hunter pumped his fist as he cruised into third.

It felt symbolic. As if Pujols and the Angels had finally squashed the upstart, perpetually low-budget A's and this improbable run they've been on. Talent matters. Money matters. Order had been restored.

And then A's reliever Jerry Blevins got Kendrys Morales to strike out and Howie Kendrick to hit into a game-ending double play to preserve a critical 6-5 win.

The rally ended so suddenly, it took a few minutes to digest. But even when there was time to process, it didn't sit well.

The Angels got clutch hitting from the guy they are paying $240 million to get clutch hits, and they still lost?

Pujols delivered, and it didn't matter?

"They're playing pretty good baseball over there," Hunter said of the A's, who now lead the Angels in the American League wild-card race by 4 1/2 games with just 20 games to go. "It's just frustrating because we're playing good ball, too. They're just coming out on the W side."

Afterward, there were the familiar laments of wasted opportunities early in the game. The Angels got runners to first and third with fewer than two outs in each of the first two innings and again in the ninth but couldn't capitalize.

And of course, Hunter tried to "take this one on the chin" because he tried to cut off Coco Crisp's sharply hit triple down the right-field line and missed, playing it into an inside-the-park home run that ultimately decided the game. After he came up with a solo homer in the seventh and a critical RBI single in the ninth, this one isn't on Hunter.

But mostly, folks just shook their heads.

How is this happening? How are the A's, a team with a $55 million payroll and that had the same record as the Houston Astros (22-30) on June 1, just kicking the Angels -- they of the $154 million payroll -- in the teeth lately?

"Every loss we have hurts. Yesterday hurt. I was pissed off yesterday. I'm pissed off today," Hunter said. "We had chances, man, we just didn't take advantage of them.

"But I guess you've got to commend their pitching staff over there for getting the job done. Yesterday they had good pitching. [Jarrod] Parker pitched good. Today, we had runners in scoring position, but we just couldn't get it done."

Over on the A's side, there was a markedly different vibe. However they're doing it, they just keep doing it. Whether it has anything to do with the considerable chip they have on their shoulder playing against the Angels and Texas Rangers, who've become baseball's newest monied class with the infusion of multimillion-dollar television contracts in recent years, they wouldn't say.

"I think most of them can read," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "They're well aware that in this game, there are haves and have-nots.

"It used to be more about how many people you put in the stands. Now I think the TV contracts have more to do with kind of upping the ante as far as that goes. I'm sure everybody is aware of that. I don't think it has anything to do with how we play the game or how we look at another team. But I think everybody is aware of that.

"We're just trying to do what we can do, the best we can on any particular day. We can't concern ourselves too much with who we're playing at the time."

On this night, the A's did it mostly how they've been doing it all year: by getting home runs from Yoenis Cespedes (17) and Brandon Moss (18), and just enough pitching from one of their talented young starters, Dan Straily (6 2/3, 7 H, 3 ER, 8 SO).

They were neither dominant nor fearsome. But they got the job done, as they keep doing.

"The bottom line is winning games, and they held on and got it done," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.