“These are little micro changes,” Maddon said, putting Ohtani behind Trout for the first time this season. “We’ll see if it does have an impact.”
Did it ever.
With two outs in the ninth inning and the Angels on the verge of a fifth straight defeat, Trout hit a bloop single to right that set up Ohtani for the game-deciding blow: a go-ahead two-run home run that hooked just inside the right-field foul pole and lifted the Angels’ to a 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox.
“It takes a bloop and a blast,” Maddon said postgame. “You say that all the time in the dugout, and that’s exactly what occurred. Loved the fight.”
It was Ohtani’s 12th home run of the season, tied for the most in the majors, and the first go-ahead blast in the ninth inning or later in his MLB career.
It was the Angels’ first go-ahead home run when down to their last out since 2013, when Hank Conger hit one at Milwaukee.
And it offered a reeling team a much-needed sigh of relief, preventing them from getting swept at Fenway Park on a day they held an early 4-0 lead.
“Coming off a losing streak — and the first two games of the series we lost weren’t good ways to lose — it was huge for us as a team to come up with this win,” Ohtani said. “I think it shows we can beat any team and get things rolling.”
Indeed, the Angels (17-22) were in position to win two games this weekend. On Friday, they led by one in the seventh before reliever Tony Watson surrendered a deciding two-run homer en route to a 4-3 loss. After getting blown out 9-0 on Saturday, they asked the bullpen to protect another narrow lead Sunday.
The Angels went ahead early with a four-run second inning, courtesy of an RBI single from Taylor Ward, RBI double from Phil Gosselin, and two-run single by Drew Butera. Starter José Quintana, meanwhile, was sharp over the first 4⅓ innings, giving up one run while striking out seven.
But then, with one out in the fifth, Quintana yielded a long solo home run to Kevin Plawecki and an infield single to Jonathan Araúz. Even though Quintana’s pitch count was only 74, Maddon decided to make a change, summoning right-hander Aaron Slegers from the bullpen hoping he could get a ground-ball double play.
It didn’t work out.
Slegers did induce a grounder from his first batter, Michael Chavis, but it found a hole on the left side of the infield for a base hit. In the next at-bat, Slegers got Rafael Devers in an 0-and-2 count but then missed with a fastball over the heart of the plate. Devers crushed it to right for a three-run homer, giving the Red Sox (25-17) a 5-4 lead.
“We cannot be giving up leads like this,” Maddon said. “We jeopardized it again today.”
But this time, the Angels were able to recover in the ninth.
Maddon made the lineup switch with Trout and Ohtani on Sunday for a simple reason. With usual leadoff hitter David Fletcher slumping (and out Sunday with a hip injury), Maddon has been experimenting with different players at the top of the order.
For the series finale, it was left-handed hitting Jose Rojas who was tabbed for the spot. And to break up Rojas and fellow left-hander Ohtani in the order, Maddon slotted the right-handed Trout between them.
For most of the day, it didn’t look like it would matter. That trio began the day a combined 0 for 12, including a strikeout from Rojas for the second out in the ninth, when Trout dug in as the Angels’ last hope.
Red Sox closer Matt Barnes got Trout to hit a pop up to right, but with the infield shifted the other way and the outfield playing deep, the ball found a perfect landing spot to keep the game alive.
That brought up Ohtani, who swung at the first pitch he saw and lifted a high drive down the right-field line. In most parks, it might have hooked foul in front of the marker. But at Fenway, where “Pesky’s Pole” stands just 302 feet from home plate, the ball hung up just long enough to stay fair.
“You always have that intuition, or you immediately know if it’s fair or foul,” Maddon said. “And I saw fair. … It had hook on it, but you could see it all the way.”
Echoed Ohtani: “I was looking up at the ball and praying it would stay fair. That’s all I was thinking after I hit it.”
Asked if it was the biggest of his 59 career MLB home runs, Ohtani responded, “I would say so.”
It felt like a potentially critical moment in the Angels’ season, too. Entering Sunday, the team had lost 10 of its last 13. And while Maddon and other players have maintained belief the season wasn’t slipping away, it was clear frustration was starting to mount.
A bit of that pressure was released when Ohtani’s blast landed in the seats, paving the way for Mike Mayers — who pitched the bottom of the ninth after closer Raisel Iglesias was brought on to maintain a one-run deficit in the eighth — to earn the save a half-inning later.
“It was explosive, volcanic, whatever you want to say,” Maddon said. “It was great. The guys need something to cheer about. They’ve been getting after it pretty well. Tough road trip. The record does not indicate how close we were to having a great road trip.”
And as for his lineup decision, which ended up creating the perfect circumstances for the ninth-inning drama?
“Is the proper word ‘prescient’? Or just getting lucky? All of the above,” Maddon said with a laugh, later adding: “That’s something you can never really anticipate. But I’ll take it. Based on the other games we’ve played recently, I’ll take it.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.