Things were supposed to be different this year for the Angels.
The Halos always field a mix of aggressive, athletic offensive ballplayers combined with competent starting pitching and a lockdown bullpen, but they always seem to find themselves a crumpled, crushed shell of a baseball team by the time the Red Sox got done with them.
With a significantly beefed-up offense this season along with a still-solid pitching corps, the Angels modified their team equation and have romped toward an AL West crown that seems almost a foregone conclusion with little more than two weeks left in baseball’s regular season.
After all, this is an Angels team that leads the majors with a .286 team batting average and is second behind only the Yankees in runs scored. Kendry Morales has turned into a bat-wielding beast at the third base position, and nearly every hitter in the lineup is hovering around the .300 mark in mid-September.
All of that is impressive, but none of it seems to matter when the hard-luck Angels confront the Big, Bad Sox within the friendly confines of Fenway Park.
Instead, it’s the Same Old Angels that have found ways to snatch defeat from the clutches of victory and find new and interesting ways to lose each time they visit Boston. The Sox are the big bully that keeps kicking sand in the face of the Angels no matter what they do toughen themselves up.
The Sox have the Angels’ number and showed that they aren’t about to give it back any time soon with a 9-8 comeback win Wednesday night in a four-hour extravaganza at Fenway Park. The game ended with an Alex Gonzalez walk-off RBI single, one of a season-high five walk-off wins around Major League Baseball in an evening of epic baseball games.
With the Wednesday night loss, the perennial playoff contender Angels dropped to 12-20 — including regular season and playoffs — at the Fens since the 2004 season, when the current hex was first germinated. It all began memorably enough when Jarrod Washburn served up an opposite-field home run to David Ortiz in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 3 of the 2004 ALDS, and things have never been close to the same since then for the Anaheim whipping boys.
Wednesday night’s walk-off win for Boston featured a series of unlikely heroes. The baseball gods seemingly smiled down on the Olde Towne Team — and frowned on the Angels.
It’s the kind of thing that Casey Kotchman experienced way too often as a member of those Angels teams that routinely viewed Fenway Park as something of a baseball torture chamber — and it’s the reason that the first baseman was sitting happily on the right side of the one-sided rivalry this time around.
“The fans start singing 'Sweet Caroline' and then the stuff starts happening [at Fenway],” said Kotchman, perfectly encapsulating the self-fulfilling prophecy of defeat some longtime Angels have to feel after so many heartbreaks and beat downs at the Fens. “I don’t think [struggling at Fenway] was openly talked in the [Angels] locker room. Everybody taking part in the games could come up with their own assumptions, but it wasn’t openly talked about.
“It was obviously something that wasn’t very pleasurable, and I’ve told Ortiz a couple of times about when I’d be playing first and untucking my jersey as I’m walking off the field while the Red Sox are all jumping up and down. Personally, it’s nice to be on this end of it tonight.”
Boston has famously ended LA’s baseball seasons during the playoffs in three of the last five baseball seasons, and the Angels have tragically self-destructed in many of those games over that time.
The scenario Wednesday night had Scioscia red-faced and cursing out the umpiring crew by the time the fateful ninth inning had played itself out, and Angels players expressed their frustration after the game. The breaks went both ways over the course of nine eventful innings, but there were a series of breaking points for the Angels.
- Joe Saunders and the Angels self-destructed in the sixth inning after holding on to a 3-0 lead. Erick Aybar dropped the ball while making the turn on one potential double-play ball, and then Howie Kendrick bobbled the ball in the hole near second base on another grounder that might have been a double play if cleanly played. The fielding miscues led to five runs and three unearned runs that first left the door ajar for an eventual Boston victory.
- With two outs in the ninth inning of a one-run game, closer Brian Fuentes walked David Ortiz on four pitches and sparked a game-winning rally for the Red Sox. Jed Lowrie, with his .148 batting average, pinch hit for Kotchman. Making in his first at-bat since Aug. 6 against the Yankees, Lowrie rifled a single down the third-base line that was smothered on the infield dirt by Chone Figgins. The spectacular diving play prevented a potential run from scoring, but not for long.
- Nick Green followed up with a nine-pitch at-bat with the bases loaded that resulted in a full-count walk that had everyone in the Angels dugout crying foul. It appeared that Green didn’t check his swing earlier in the at-bat with two strikes, but an appeal to the first-base ump went his way. A borderline fastball near the lower end of the strike zone with a full count was called ball four to Green, and the controversial walk forced in a run. That Green could even function was a miracle given that he mentioned to reporters afterward that his right leg has been giving him problems, and video replays show that it clearly hampered him in the at bat.
- Alex Gonzalez blooped the game-winning RBI single to left field that scored J.D. Drew with the game-winning run, but it appeared that Juan Rivera might have potentially had a play on the ball with a bit more of a hustling effort in left field. Instead, Rivera got a late break and failed to at least dive for the sinking ball in a do-or-die moment.
“There’s some sick talent on [this team]. I love this team, I love them to death. But to win we’ve got to show nuts,” said Angels outfielder Torii Hunter, who couldn’t hide his disgust at losing such a big September statement game against LA's likely playoff opponent. “If you play nervous, you’re going to make mistakes. Show some nuts. We need to do better. Got to do better, got to play better, got to have more fun. Play every game, play to win, but enjoy it and have fun. Let your God-given ability take place. You don’t let a crowd or an atmosphere change anything. If you strike out, you strike out. If you mess up on a play, you mess up on a play. Don’t show me signs of [being] soft.”
Each year is supposed to be different for the Angels when they play October baseball against their East Coast counterparts, but these two franchises seem to be intrinsically linked, with Anaheim always destined for the short end of the baseball stick.
Whether it’s a Josh Beckett shutdown performance on the pitcher’s mound, an Ortiz walk-off home run, or Manny Ramirez victimizing K-Rod with a game-winning blast for the ages, the Sox always find a way to knock the halo squarely off the Angels’ heads.
Just don’t ask players in the Red Sox clubhouse to admit it. They know better than to admit ownership of an opponent they’ll like see less than a month from now in the ALDS.
Put it this way: there aren’t too many in red stockings quaking in their proverbial spikes at the thought of another tussle with the Angels.
“Sometimes when you win like this you can get people thinking, but the playoffs are a whole, totally different scenario,” Ortiz said. “It don’t matter.”
With the knowledge that home field advantage and a psychological advantage over the Angels really does matter for this Red Sox team come playoff-time, here are four other things learned in 4:07 of epic, playoff-style baseball:
BEATING THE ANGELS TWO STRAIGHT IS IMPRESSIVE, AND IT'S EVEN MORE SO CONSIDERING THE PITCHERS AND HITTERS MISSING FROM BOSTON'S LINEUP
Subtracting the No. 3 and No. 4 hitter from any major league lineup would be enough to take the starch out of any baseball team facing playoff-caliber competition, but missing Kevin Youkilis and Victor Martinez while facing John Lackey, Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana is something else entirely.It made no difference to the red-hot Sox, however, as the Boston bats managed to scrap together 13 runs in their first two games against Angels pitching without either of their big bats. David Ortiz came up big in Tuesday night’s first win, but unlikely hitting heroes ranging from Nick Green to Jed Lowrie to Alex Gonzalez cushioned the loss of Boston’s middle-of-the-order boppers.
“I can’t believe what a great game that was,” said Sox right-hander Paul Byrd, who worked the first 5-1/3 innings but was long gone by the time things were decided. “It wasn’t just the superstars like Big Papi that came through. It was guys like Nick Green coming up to the plate cold and Jed Lowrie getting the job done.
“Alex Gonzalez again gets another big hit for us. It was just a total team effort. For us to come back using all different kinds of players is just a testament to the way that this team was put together. We have a very well-balanced team. A great group of guys, and a bunch of guys that never give up.”
Youkilis has been missing for the past two games with back spasms that he said will affect him for the rest of the regular season and playoffs, and Martinez was in Cleveland attending to serious family issues over the last two days. Without either offensive force in the lineup, the Sox are missing two hitters combined that are hitting at a .333 clip since the All-Star break with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in 321 at bats.
It’s the kind of production that would normally be sorely missed against a formidable opponent like the Angels, but has been offset by Boston’s team-wide efforts. If adversity like Youkilis’ balky back or Martinez’ off-field problems had hit the team just one month prior, there’s no telling how the remaining players might have reacted. But things are lining up nicely for Boston now in all phases of the game, and their current seven-game winning streak highlights just how right things have gone in every department.
“You wanted to see where we stood and see where we stacked up with basically their top three pitchers going [in this series],” said Bay. “To get these two wins when we’re not at our best really speaks to how this team has been playing. [Missing Youk and Martinez] makes these last two wins a little more than just regular wins, especially with Texas struggling and putting a little space between us and them.
“It’s the way we’re playing now. If this were to have happened a month-and-a-half ago then who knows what would have happened, but we’re on a roll now and the way we’re winning makes that pretty evident.”
JONATHAN PAPELBON CASTS A VERY LONG SHADOW IN THE BOSTON BULLPEN
The Boston Herald first reported that Jonathan Papelbon wouldn’t be available for Wednesday night’s game after tweaking his back while warming up in the Fenway bullpen on Tuesday night.
Papelbon’s minor health issue forced each Sox reliever to move up a slot in terms of responsibility and role on Wednesday night.
Both Billy Wagner and Papelbon were officially out of commission for Wednesday night’s game, and that meant a second consecutive night of work for Ramon Ramirez as well as featuring Daniel Bard as the last line of bullpen defense. Ramirez was victimized by a Jason Varitek strike three passed ball that should have been the end of the seventh inning, but the hard-throwing Dominican right-hander couldn’t stop the bullpen bleeding once it started.
With a 7-7 tie ballgame in hand, Bard entered the game in the top of the ninth inning in the Papelbon role and was touched up for a single run when the Angels hitters put together a series of impressive at-bats. The rally culminated in a Bobby Abreu opposite-field single to left field that scored a run, and set up Boston’s two-out rally in the bottom half of the inning.
“I don’t really care about wins and losses out of the bullpen. I don’t think they define how you’re throwing the ball, but that was huge,” said Bard. “I’m ecstatic to see us win the game right there. I got two quick outs and tried to keep attacking them. They hit all fastballs that were down, and they were doing a good job of being patient and trying not to do too much.
“Pap and Billy were both down, so we had to eat up innings in a game that was going back and forth.”
TIM WAKEFIELD ISN'T ENDANGERING HIMSELF BY SUCKING IT UP AND PITCHING NEXT WEEKEND
Wakefield met with the Sox medical staff and Sox manager Terry Francona on Wednesday prior to Wednesday night’s game against the Angels, and it was determined that pitching won’t do any further damage to his ailing back and weakened right leg.
The 43-year-old knuckleballer will start either Sunday or Monday for Boston, though Francona indicated one night before that it would probably be Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles.
“As of today, I can pitch. The meeting we had basically was to determine whether or not it was safe for me to continue to pitch, because my strength has gone down,” said Wakefield. “We wanted to get everybody together and decide. I'll throw another side Friday, see how it feels from there, and as of now I'm planning on pitching either Sunday or Monday.”
ALEX GONZALEZ ACTUALLY CAN WATCH FOUR BALLS GO PAST HIM IN AN AT-BAT WITH THE RED SOX
The “when will he walk” mini-drama that accompanied every Alex Gonzalez can officially be put to rest when he finally worked a walk with the Red Sox in his 28th game and 97th at bat with Boston. The free-swinging Gonzalez’s walk in the bottom of the eighth inning actually factored into the scoring as it loaded the bases and helped set up a Jacoby Ellsbury single through the hole between first base and second base.
Clearly, Gonzalez used the adrenaline rush from finally collecting a base on balls in the eight to produce his fifth career walk-off hit with the game-winning RBI single to left off Brian Fuentes in the bottom of the ninth inning.