ANAHEIM -- When the baseball left Richie Sexson's bat, the Mariners first baseman thought he had hit his third home run of the game, turning a one-run deficit into a one-run lead in the ninth inning. So close ... and yet so far. The ball came down in left-center field, a few inches short of being over the fence. Instead, it became another highlight-reel catch for Angels center fielder Torii Hunter, who literally stole the show Friday night, as the Mariners dropped a 5-4 decision to their American League West rivals in front of a sellout crowd of 43,939 at Angel Stadium.
Hunter ended the three-game series opener with a leaping catch against the fence, robbing Sexson of another home run and the Mariners of another win on this two-city road trip that began with back-to-back victories in Oakland. "I thought I got enough of it, but that's why his glove has gold on it," Sexson said. "He made a great play. That's a tough one to swallow. I hit it to the deepest part of the park, and [Hunter] is the best there is at doing that. "You come to expect stuff like that. Plays like that seem to find him. He not only has the opportunities, but he has the knack to make them nine out of 10 times." And just like that, add Sexson to the list of victims Hunter has robbed. "That has been his game for a long time," Mariners manager John McLaren said, adding that he considers former Mariner Ken Griffey Jr. and Hunter as the two best outfielders he has seen make over-the-fence catches. "In the old days, we used to have highlights of Griffey about every other game," McLaren said. "Hunter is the same way. He's athletic and has no fear. Plus, he is fairly tall. He enjoys climbing the fence and has done it so many times over the years." There was some confusion whether Hunter actually caught the ball. "I knew he hit it good, but I thought it was off the end of the bat just a tad," McLaren said. "I thought it had a chance." But with Hunter playing center field, balls that normally would go out somehow stay in just enough for him to make the catch. "I think it was over the fence," Hunter said. "He hit it pretty high, and I had time to get to the fence and time it. I didn't know if I was going to hit the fence. That was sweet. You can't beat taking a home run away. It could have been a game-winner. I'm pretty excited about that." So rather than have his third career three-homer game, Sexson had to settle for his 24th two-homer game. On this night, the Mariners got a stomach full of Hunter. Besides his game-ending catch, which came with Adrian Beltre on first base, Hunter had three doubles and drove in three runs with a bases-loaded rocket into the left-field corner in the first inning. The toughest part of Hunter's day was driving to the park. He was rear-ended after exiting the freeway near the stadium, but his car was hurt much worse than he was. Hunter did his part to spoil right-hander R.A. Dickey's first Major League start in more than two years. The now knuckleball specialist, pressed into starting duty when left-hander Erik Bedard went on the 15-day disabled list with inflammation in his left hip, got off to a rocky start. The first three Angels reached base, two on opposite-field singles, and the other on a walk. After striking out Garret Anderson for the first out of the inning and getting two quick strikes on Hunter with knuckleballs, a fastball that was supposed to be inside got too much of the strike zone and was ripped into the left-field corner for a bases-clearing double. Of the 98 pitches he threw, that one to Hunter hurt Dickey the most. "I flog myself more than just a little for throwing him that pitch," Dickey said, "especially after I had thrown him some good knuckleballs and he was waving at them. I tried to sneak [a fastball] in on him, and it was the wrong decision." Dickey bent over backward not to blame catcher Kenji Johjima for calling for a fastball in that situation. "It's ultimately my responsibility," he said. "I could have stepped off, but I didn't." Johjima, who did a terrific job catching a knuckler for an entire game, explained that he wanted to show Hunter "another kind of pitch because we had thrown him all knuckleballs." In retrospect, but not second-guessing himself, Johjima said he wishes he would have stayed with the knuckler. Dickey went on to retire 15 of the next 17 batters he faced before Hunters' two-out double in the sixth inning ignited a two-run outburst by the Angels, giving left-handed starter Joe Saunders (3-0) a four-run lead. Sexson got rid of all but one run of that bulge with a three-run blast into the left-field seats in the top of the seventh. It was his fourth home run of the season and second of the game. The first one came on a full-count pitch with one out in the second inning. It was the 16th time this season the first baseman took a count to the max, and the first time he put the payoff pitch in play. He previously had walked eight times and struck out seven times.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.