As the ball left Albert Pujols’ bat Friday in the ninth inning, Mariners closer Edwin Diaz feared the worst as it rocketed toward deep center field while threatening to erase a one-run lead.
Then the ball fell short. It hit the wall. Center fielder Guillermo Heredia pounced on it quickly and held a lead-footed Pujols to a single as Diaz exhaled.
"I thought it was a homer," he said. "When it hit the wall, I said, `I’ve got them.’ I made my pitches after that."
Diaz retired the next three batters in order, two by strikeout, and closed out a 4-3 victory over the Los Angeles Angels that enabled the Mariners to halt a three-game skid while pumping some new life into their flickering postseason hopes.
"Luckily for us," manager Scott Servais said, "it stayed in the ballpark. We needed a couple of breaks. We haven’t gotten a lot lately. Then (Diaz) went to work."
The victory lifted the Mariners to 70-71 and enabled them to remain four games behind Minnesota in the race for the American League’s final wild-card berth with 21 games remaining. It remains a tall order.
"Everyone knows what’s at stake," left fielder Ben Gamel said. "We’re just trying to take a step back and take it one game at a time. Win today. And tomorrow, win tomorrow."
Gamel did his part with a three-run homer in the second inning against Angels starter Ricky Nolasco (6-13) that erased an early two-run deficit. Gamel also made a leaping catch at the wall in the sixth inning that helped blunt an LA comeback.
Mike Leake (2-0) again rebounded from a shaky start in pitching six strong innings before a relay of five relievers covered the final nine outs without allowing a run.
"He made some adjustments," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I think he found his breaking-ball command."
Leake started the game by giving up three straight hits, including Justin Upton’s two-run single past first.
That matched Leake’s first Mariners start, when he gave up three runs on two hits in the first inning Sept. 1 against Oakland. He then allowed nothing further to the Athletics in pitching through the seventh inning.
"Seriously, we’re going to have to get away from that," he said. "Unfortunately, it took a few hitters to get going. But once I get in a rhythm, it’s nice to work with Mike (Zunino). He’s very creative."
Leake recorded 14 straight outs before C.J. Cron punched a two-out single into center in the fifth inning. By then, the Mariners had a 4-2 lead.
The Angels got one run back in the sixth, but Leake held the lead in closing out the inning. Then the bullpen took over.
***Gamel at the wall: In addition to his three-run homer, Gamel made a leaping catch at the wall on Brandon Phillips’ leadoff drive in the sixth inning. Would it have left the park? Even Gamel wasn’t sure.
"I just knew I had to go up and get it," he said. "I had a pretty good jump off the bat. I had time. I was playing a little deeper. I had the bullpen yelling. I pretty much knew where I was."
It was a key out. The Angels scored later in the inning, but Leake was — thanks to Gamel — was able to limit the damage to one run. That allowed him to turn over a 4-3 lead to the bullpen.
"That could have changed the game," Leake said. "It was a big-time catch at a good time."
***Peace of mind: Diaz said he heard from his family in Puerto Rico and that everyone was safe in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.
"I know everybody is good over there," he said. "They’re safe, so I can work a little more relaxed on the mound. But work is work, and family is family. Today was a great outing for me."
Diaz has 32 saves in 36 opportunities for an 88.9-percent success rate. He also leads the majors with 19 saves (in 20 chances) since the All-Star break.
***Rotation on a roll: Leake provided the Mariners with their fifth straight quality start in limiting the Angels to two earned runs in six innings. The rotation is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA over the last seven games.
Leake is 2-0 with quality starts in both of his outings since arriving from St. Louis in an Aug. 30 trade for minor-league infielder Rayder Ascanio.
"He’s fun to watch pitch," Servais said. "He can move the ball to both sides of the plate. The breaking ball, he changes speeds on. He reads the bat extremely well."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners