Saving his best for last, Hunter saves the day

Saving his best for last, Hunter saves the day
ANAHEIM -- Who knows what happens this offseason. Heck, who knows what happens this last week of the regular season. But Torii Hunter, a free agent in November, may be playing out his final days in an Angels uniform right now.

His mission, clearly, is to extend that as long as possible.

Against the Mariners on Wednesday, with the Angels' postseason hopes hanging in the balance like never before, the beloved veteran outfielder tied the game in the seventh and, two innings later, delivered the walk-off single in a 4-3 win that kept his team two games back of the final playoff spot.

This was the Angels' second-to-last regular-season home game, meaning it could be the second-to-last time a fan base that fell in love with Hunter five years ago gets to see him play for their team.

But Hunter maintains that his focus is centralized.

"That's out of my mind right now," he said. "I really want to be here, but that's something individual right now. The team is all I care about. Once the season's over with -- whether it's the next couple of days or in November, when I'm in Disneyland -- we'll see what happens."

Hunter's heroics allowed the Angels to keep pace in the American League Wild Card standings on a night when the Athletics (9-3 over the Rangers), Orioles (12-2 over the Blue Jays) and Rays (4-2 over the Red Sox) all won.

With seven games left, the Angels, a season-best 17 games over .500 after their fifth straight win, still sit two games back of the A's for the second AL Wild Card spot and 2 1/2 back of the O's for the first. The Rays are one game behind them, while the Rangers are five games better in the AL West.

"If Oakland slips twice, we win twice, we're in there," Hunter said. "We're just laying in the weeds right now. They're the gazelles."

C.J. Wilson, who gave up three runs in 5 1/3 innings in a matchup against Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, finds himself rooting for his former team this time of year.

"We're all kind of hoping to look at that scoreboard and see the Rangers winning -- as weird as that is, obviously," he said. "The Rangers can help us out a lot. The Rangers have a great record, they play them tomorrow and finish off the season in Oakland [in a three-game series]. I think it's going to come down to that, as well as our performance."

Toward the later stages of Wednesday's game, with the Angels down a run, Hunter looked up at right field's out-of-town scoreboard and saw the Rangers had lost to the A's for a second straight night.

"That's when I said, 'I have to bear down and make something happen,' " Hunter said. "I'm sure all the guys were thinking the same thing."

Hunter got that opportunity in the bottom of the seventh, with Hernandez out of the game after giving up only two runs but needing 103 pitches to get through six innings. With two outs and pinch-runner Peter Bourjos on second, Hunter fouled off three straight two-strike pitches from right-hander Josh Kinney, then poked an outside-corner curveball into right field for the game-tying single.

Two innings later -- after Jerome Williams, Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri combined to hurl 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief work -- Hunter found himself in a similar situation when Mariners skipper Eric Wedge decided to intentionally walk Mike Trout.

At that point, a crowd of 37,916, giving the Angels three million fans for a 10th straight season, began their Torii! Torii! Torii chants.

Hunter could only think one thing of Wedge's decision.

"Mistake!" he said.

Maicer Izturis began the ninth against Stephen Pryor with a single to right field, giving him his first hit in 21 at-bats as a pinch-hitter this season, then advanced to second on a wild pitch and moved to third base on a sacrifice bunt by Bourjos, who was making only his third plate appearance since Aug. 7.

Then Pryor walked Trout, who was 0-for-3 with a walk.

"They're both good hitters," Pryor said. "You kind of pick your poison there."

Hunter got a 2-0 cutter out over the plate and lined it into center field, scoring Bourjos, giving him 23 RBIs in 23 September games and -- for now, at least -- saving the Angels' postseason hopes.

Hunter doesn't come through every time the Angels need a big play, but he sure seems to.

"You just can't have a better second half than Torii's had," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's been getting clutch hit after clutch hit, but that's been there for a while. It's not like it just turned on this week. He's been doing that for us for a long time."

Hunter, with the third-highest batting average in the AL since the All-Star break, is playing some of the best baseball of his career these days. He has a chance to win his first Gold Glove in right field (and 10th overall), is on pace to finish with a batting average over .300 for the first time in his career (he's at .307) and is batting .431 with runners in scoring position.

His game-tying and game-winning hits were a perfect snapshot of why he's been so successful: He's not trying to do too much.

"When I was younger," Hunter said, "I would've tried to hit a three-run jack to win the game. That testosterone, that pride, it's something, man."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.