Hunter stuns Rangers in ninth inning of Game 1

Hunter stuns Rangers in ninth inning of Game 1

Hunter stuns Rangers in ninth inning of Game 1
ARLINGTON -- Mike Trout may win the American League's Most Valuable Player Award when it's all said and done.

But in the second half, it seems no Angels player has been more valuable than his 37-year-old mentor. And in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Rangers Ballpark on Sunday, with the Angels' faint postseason hopes once again hanging in the balance, Torii Hunter continued to prove it.

With two outs, two on and his team trailing by one in the ninth, Hunter lined a double against Rangers closer Joe Nathan, scoring two to lead the Angels to a critical 5-4 victory that put them 2 1/2 games back of the second American League Wild Card spot.

"No doubt," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "that's the biggest hit of our season so far."

"I was able to come through and help the team, and we live to fight another day," Hunter said after his four-hit game -- before catching himself.

"I mean another game," he corrected. "Same day."

Yes, less than three hours after notching their seventh win in the last eight games, the Angels would play the back end of a split doubleheader made necessary after heavy rain postponed Saturday's contest. Ervin Santana will oppose lefty Derek Holland in Game 2. The A's, who lead the Halos for the second Wild Card spot, beat the Mariners.

The question was: Will the Angels watch football or baseball between games?

"I don't know," Hunter said, his eyes fixed on the wall just in front of the couches in the visiting clubhouse. "We may have A's in the big screen and football in the little screen."

Nathan, Hunter's teammate in Minnesota from 2004-07, came in 36-for-38 in saves. But with one out, Maicer Izturis slapped a one-out single just past a lunging Adrian Beltre at third base, and Chris Iannetta drew a walk despite falling behind 0-2, paving the way for Peter Bourjos to pinch-run.

Trout, who became the youngest player in history to have a 30-30 season with a seventh-inning solo homer, then struck out swinging. But Hunter -- who allowed the Rangers to plate their fourth run by losing a ball in the sun six innings earlier -- hit a 1-1 slider into the left-center-field gap to give the Angels their first lead of the game and catapult them to victory.

"It was a bad pitch," Nathan said. "One bad pitch in the inning. Honestly, the slider was probably up all inning. But they were taking it most of the time. Just when I was involved in an at-bat with him, you can't leave a slider up right there because he's going to be swinging. Bad pitch, wrong time."

Heading into that at-bat, Hunter was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in his career against Nathan.

"That's my buddy, man," Hunter said. "He's gotten me several times. This is really my first time ever getting him, so I'm pretty excited. He's a good friend of mine, but he knows this is baseball."

And this, the late stages of his 16th season, may be some of the best baseball Hunter has ever played.

The Angels' right fielder is hitting .309, making it very likely that he'll finish with a batting average above .300 for the first time in his career. He came into Sunday with the third-highest second-half batting average in the AL, at .336. And by the end of Game 1, he had notched 25 RBIs in 26 September games.

Two of those came Wednesday night, when Hunter saved the Angels' season with the game-tying and walk-off hits against the Mariners.

Four days later, a couple more RBIs saved the Angels' season again.

"I'm hungry, man," Hunter said. "I'm about winning. When it gets close like this, or in the postseason, you simplify things, and that's what I'm trying to do, just trying to just put the bat on the ball and just make something happen."

"He's playing incredible baseball," Scioscia added. "This is definitely the best baseball we've seen Torii play. This is just something special to watch."

Zack Greinke, who came in with a 1.62 ERA over his previous seven starts, gave up four runs in 7 1/3 innings, two of them on a Nelson Cruz home run, while matching up against Yu Darvish for the second time in two weeks.

He left with one out, a runner on second and a 4-3 deficit on the scoreboard. Scott Downs then struck out Josh Hamilton, who drove in the Rangers' third run with a single, and Garrett Richards got Cruz to ground into an inning-ending fielder's choice, setting up Hunter's heroics and a clean save for Ernesto Frieri.

Greinke, a free-agent-to-be who could've been making his final start in an Angels uniform, took delight in watching the ninth unfold.

"Back in Kansas City, I never even saw anybody get on base with Joe Nathan pitching," he said. "That was kind of crazy. I mean, when Trout got up, we had a pretty good feeling. And Torii's been clutch for us lately, so we felt like we had a decent shot of at least tying it up, not necessarily what happened. That was great, though."

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.