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10/19/09 10:30 PM ET

Mathis delivers biggest hit of career

Known for glove, backstop's bat lifts Halos' ALCS hopes

ANAHEIM -- Cameras were positioned around his locker, reporters thrust microphones and tape recorders in his face and the questions that followed sounded a bit like back-handed compliments.

Everybody with a press pass wanted to ask Jeff Mathis some version of the same thing Monday:

How did you do that?

You. Jeff Mathis. The Angels' second catcher. The guy who routinely flirts with the dreaded Mendoza Line. The guy who serves as a poster boy for the "all-catch, no-hit" reputation.

How did you just hit the game-winning double in a thrilling and, for the Halos, potentially season-saving Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees?

"You never know when your number's going to be called," the soft-spoken Mathis said after the Angels' 5-4 win. "You've got to be ready for it, and, when your number's called, you've got to be ready to step up."

Boy, did he step up.

In a four-hour, 21-minute game of twists and turns, mixups and matchups, the most significant move manager Mike Scioscia made, in retrospect, was pinch-hitting for Mike Napoli in the bottom of the seventh. The game was tied at 3, the Angels had a man on third with one out, and Scioscia correctly guessed that pinch-hitter Maicer Izturis could lift a sacrifice fly off Damaso Marte.

The move had short-term success, as Izturis did, indeed, come through with the fly ball to right. And it had longer-lasting effects, in that Mathis entered the game in the top of the eighth to take over the departed Napoli's catching duties.

Almost immediately, Mathis showed off the skills that earn him his paycheck and his playing time. Reliever Kevin Jepsen walked Hideki Matsui to lead off the inning, and pinch-runner Brett Gardner came in. With Jorge Posada at the plate, Gardner took off for second, and Mathis gunned him down with a rocket throw.

"[Defense] is first," Mathis said. "It always has been. To get him out and get him off second, with Jorge coming up, was pretty big."

Indeed it was, because Posada followed up the caught stealing by lofting a game-tying shot to center. It was the blast that wound up pushing the game into extra innings, and it was in extra innings when Mathis' bat took over.

His first trip to the plate came against Phil Hughes to lead off the bottom of the 10th. Mathis ripped a 1-1 cutter to the gap in left-center for a double.

With third catcher Bobby Wilson on the active roster, Scioscia could have brought in a pinch-runner for Mathis. But he showed faith in his catcher.

"For a catcher, he moves well," Scioscia said. "I think we felt strong about, if something happened and we didn't get it done, we wanted his defensive presence back there to continue in the game."

With the Angels' victory in Game 3, an ALCS stands at 2-1 for the 20th time since it became a best-of-seven series in 1985. Fourteen of the previous 19 teams leading went on to win its ALCS.
Year Team up 2-1 Opponent Final
2008 Rays Red Sox 4-3
2007 Indians Red Sox 4-3
2005 White Sox Angels 4-1
2003 Yankees Red Sox 4-3
2002 Angels Twins 4-1
2001 Yankees Mariners 4-1
2000 Yankees Mariners 4-2
1999 Yankees Red Sox 4-1
1998 Indians Yankees 4-2
1997 Indians Orioles 4-2
1996 Yankees Orioles 4-1
1995 Mariners Indians 4-2
1993 Blue Jays White Sox 4-2
1992 Blue Jays A's 4-2
1991 Twins Blue Jays 4-1
1989 A's Blue Jays 4-1
1987 Twins Tigers 4-1
1986 Angels Red Sox 4-3
1985 Blue Jays Royals 4-3
Teams in bold won the series.

And the Angels didn't get it done. Mathis slid in safely at third on Erick Aybar's sac bunt against Mariano Rivera, who made an off-balanced throw to third in an attempt to get Mathis. The throw got past third baseman Alex Rodriguez and scooted toward the camera pit, but left fielder Johnny Damon backed up the play, and Mathis was unable to score. The Angels wound up leaving the bases loaded, but, as Mathis said, they didn't fret.

"You can't crumble," Mathis said. "You've got to keep battling."

The battle continued into the 11th. And with two out and none on, the Angels found a way to put together the third postseason walk-off win in club history, with Mathis serving as the star.

Howard Kendrick singled off Alfredo Aceves, and Mathis came up looking for something to drive. On a 1-0 pitch, he got a hanging slider, and he did the same thing to it he did to the one Hughes had offered an inning earlier.

Mathis, who hit just .211 in 84 games this season, crushed the pitch to left-center. And as the ball bounced off the wall and the speedy Kendrick came streaking home, Mathis became an unlikely hero.

"Mathis has a lot of heart," teammate Torii Hunter said. "What you do in the season doesn't matter. The postseason is different. Mathis has that bulldog in him."

He also had, within the screaming crowd of 44,911 fans at Angel Stadium, two very special people on hand to witness the magic moment. After his teammates mobbed him and his manager hugged him, Mathis pointed to his mother, Bonnie, and his grandmother, Judy Revell, who were in attendance.

"They've been with me the whole postseason," Mathis said. "They were able to experience that with us in Boston. For them to be here for this is awesome."

Who would have thought that the big, game-deciding hit the Angels had been waiting for all series would come from Mathis?

That is, of course, the beauty of postseason baseball. And on Monday, life was beautiful for Mathis and his teammates.

"It's the biggest hit of my life," he said. "It's a pretty good feeling.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.