ANAHEIM -- This is how they're going to have to do it, with an unexpected steal of third base, a perfectly executed safety squeeze and all of the little things necessary to scratch out big wins against big opponents. The Angels, in a constant struggle to generate offense outside of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, finally got some of that in Monday's eighth inning.
"As a group, we're trying to find our deep lineup, we're trying to find our consistency," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after his team's 4-3 win over the first-place Astros. "But along with that batter's box offense comes a situational game which we just haven't executed as well as we need to this year. Tonight was a good sign."
After Pujols went deep two more times to give him 15 homers in his last 24 games, 12 in June and 23 on the season, and after setup man Joe Smith blew a two-run lead in the eighth, the bottom of the Angels' order broke through against an Astros bullpen that entered with the second-lowest ERA in the American League.
Erick Aybar, batting .194 in June heading into the series opener, led off the bottom of the eighth with a single. Then he advanced to second on a wild pitch. Then he got a big jump on Joe Thatcher's complex, herky-jerky delivery, swiping third base with only one out.
The next batter, Daniel Robertson, followed with a perfect bunt to the right side, plating Aybar after an errant, desperation throw from Astros first baseman Chris Carter.
The Angels trimmed their AL West deficit to 4 1/2 games.
"It's nice to see us manufacture a run at the end, get the whole team into it, especially after I blew it," said Smith, who gave up an RBI single to Jason Castro and a run-scoring ground-rule double to Jose Altuve. "It's a good feeling. That's what we're going to have to continue to do."
Prior to Robertson's bunt, the Angels had scored 106 runs since May 28, and Pujols and Trout had driven in or scored 87 of them. They entered the three-game series ranked 22nd in the Majors in runs per game and 23rd in OPS, a big reason -- the reason -- they sported a .500 record for the 16th time.
Robertson, now the starting left fielder against lefties, was given the bunt sign twice despite fouling off his first attempt.
"Nothing's guaranteed," Robertson said. "This game is surrounded by failure. More often than not, we fail at the little things. It's just getting the bunt down in the first place. If I get it down, we've got a chance. It going to first, I got lucky."
The Angels will need more than that if they're going to make up ground in a division they won handily last year. They're still in third place, 1 1/2 games behind the Rangers and four games ahead of the Mariners -- the popular pick to win the division in Spring Training.
"It's not just the Astros," Pujols said. "You can't take any team for granted. Texas is playing pretty well. I know Seattle is going through a tough time right now, but sooner or later they'll be there. Oakland. It's a long season. Look at last year, we were seven, eight games out and we end up winning the division by 10 games. Anything can happen, so all you can do is go out there and try to win as many series as you can."