NEW YORK -- Gary Matthews Jr. said he would have bet his house -- and a very fine house it is -- that he wouldn't be batting cleanup for the Angels as June approached. No gambler by either nature or inclination, Matthews was using a figure of speech to stress a point. He was discussing the unlikely nature of him moving from leadoff to cleanup, which is where he was and what he did in sending Kelvim Escobar and the Angels off to a 3-1 triumph over the Yankees on Saturday. This sent most of the 52,536 fans in another distinguished house, the one that Ruth built, home as unhappy as Bobby Abreu, who took a called third strike from Francisco Rodriguez to end the game with two Yankees on base.
The Angels are now 30-24 at Yankee Stadium during the Joe Torre era and 57-52 overall against the Yanks, making Los Angeles the only American League team to hold an edge over the Bombers during the 12-year stretch. Matthews' two-run triple keyed a three-run first inning that held up behind a sturdy Escobar (seven innings, eight strikeouts) and the double anchor at the back of the bullpen, Scot Shields and K-Rod, whose save was his 15th in 16 chances. Escobar improved to 6-2 and reduced his ERA to 2.64. "I never expected to come here and hit cleanup," Matthews said. "They talked about bringing in some people in the offseason and had some names floating around. I'd have bet the house that Gary Matthews Jr. wouldn't be hitting cleanup. Lucky I didn't." Matthews' telling blow on a 1-1 pitch went to left center, a vast expanse, and it came following Reggie Willits' leadoff walk and Vlad Guerrero's single, sending both scurrying home. Yanks starter Chien-Ming Wang (3-4) couldn't have known it at the time, but that was all that the tenacious Escobar -- pitching like an All-Star -- would need with help from his friends, Shields and K-Rod. The smoking-hot Casey Kotchman delivered Matthews with a single to left, the first of three hits for the first baseman on a perfect day. Making the runs stand up with a typically robust effort, Escobar yielded a two-out RBI single to Doug Mientkiewicz in the fourth and nothing more. Shields got two outs in the eighth with one quality pitch to Alex Rodriguez, the game's leading home-run hitter, before K-Rod struck out the side in the ninth around a pair of singles. "It's great to get out and get that lead," said bench coach-turned-manager Ron Roenicke, filling in for Mike Scioscia as the skipper attends his son's high school graduation in Encino, Calif. "It helps our pitchers, too. "[Escobar] was brilliant out there. For me, he's virtually unhittable when he's like that. He has four offspeed pitches that are as good as any offspeed pitches in the league, to go with his fastball command." Roenicke was equally effusive in his praise of Matthews, whose glove has saved countless runs for the pitching staff while he's scored a club-high 33 times and driven home 26 in support of Guerrero's 40 RBIs. "The four-spot, protecting Vladdy, that's really tough to do," Roenicke said. "If Vladdy walks, it's on Gary. That's a really important spot in the lineup." Garret Anderson was handling that important spot before tearing a hip flexor muscle on April 27, leaving Scioscia scrambling for options. Willits' uncommon leadoff skills made Matthews available. "It's tough," Matthews said of the move from first to fourth. "It's an adjustment. When I have a bad day, it's hard on me. I take it personally." Matthews led off the first 29 games of the season and now has cleaned up, behind the great Guerrero, for the past 14. The Angels' record in those 14 games is 11-3, so the free-agent center fielder must be doing some things right. He's hitting .263 as a cleanup hitter with two homers and 12 RBIs, his average sliding from .299 to .283. No other player in the game has made as many as 10 appearances in both the cleanup and leadoff spots, underscoring the uncommon nature of what Matthews calls a "big challenge." Often, instead of surveying a pitcher's stuff in his first at-bat to get a reading on what he has, Matthews goes up looking for something in a good spot to drive -- immediately. That's the cleanup man's role. "That's especially true when you come up with runners in scoring position," he said. "You might not get another opportunity. They pitch you differently in the cleanup spot. They're a little more careful with location. It's something I'm learning." Against Wang, who won 19 games last season largely with a heavy sinker producing ground balls, Matthews was looking for something in a certain zone -- and he found it to his liking, driving the ball to the "399" sign. He did it again an inning later, slamming a first-pitch line drive to dead center with the bases loaded, but Melky Cabrera got back and handled it. The Angels were unable to cash in another big opportunity in the third when Kotchman led off with a double, but Escobar and Co. were up to the task. "That was a huge play," Roenicke said of Shields' delivery resulting in a 6-4-3 double play by A-Rod in the eighth. When Abreu took a fastball from K-Rod for a third strike on a pitch he judged outside, Yanks were left stranded at the corners, and the baseball shrine fell silent. The Angels go for a sweep on Sunday behind John Lackey, who faces Mike Mussina.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.