Commentary

Energized Halos face big test in Game 4

Angels need a win to even ALCS at 2-2, but they must overcome Yankees' ace to do so

Originally Published: October 20, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Until the Angels crossed home plate with the fifth and winning run in the 11th inning of Game 3, their role in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees had mimicked that of the Minnesota Twins the series before: to play close enough, to make just enough plays to maintain their dignity, but not enough to surpass the Yankees and finish them at the end.

[+] EnlargeCC Sabathia
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia is 2-0 with a 1.23 ERA in two starts this postseason.

Now, thanks to a belated but spirited rally Monday, the Angels are alive, holding their home-field advantage as surely as the Yankees held theirs. For much of the first three games, the Angels held advantages in momentum, found ways to feel good about the way they were competing, remained just dangerous enough -- and close enough on the scoreboard. But when the championship points were played, it was the Yankees who held the advantage.

The Angels now trail the series 2-1, with Games 4 and 5 on their home field. The same inability to punish the Yankees that plagued them during the first two games in New York lingered throughout Monday's Game 3 -- until a patented rally, one that had been in remission for too long, finally erupted. The timely rally erased Bobby Abreu's baserunning error, which in defeat would have been as crushing as reliever Brian Fuentes' Saturday night special that resulted in Alex Rodriguez's game-tying homer in the 11th inning of Game 2.

But victory provides the best balm. Abreu erased his 0-for-9 series start with two hits and a run scored in Game 3. Vladimir Guerrero, the dormant volcano, rocked a two-run homer to tie the game in the sixth. The two had been a combined 2-for-20 in the first two games. In Game 3, the Angels notched at least one hit in each of the first eight innings and in 10 of the 11.

Winning this key game was the first part of the challenge. The second part -- beating Yankees ace CC Sabathia and avoiding a 3-1 hole -- awaits the Angels in Game 4. Without an encore performance against Sabathia, the heroics of Game 3 -- in which the Yankees hit three home runs and led 3-0 after five innings -- will provide just a temporary sensation of good feeling on the way to elimination. Sabathia shut down the Angels on four hits over eight innings in a 4-1 win in Game 1, and he holds a 1.23 ERA in two postseason starts this October.

"To come back and win this way after we got left on the field at their place ... it's definitely good to come back and get that win, and hopefully the same thing [Tuesday in Game 4]," said second baseman Howie Kendrick, who continued his personal redemption by hitting a home run for the Angels' first run, tripling and scoring the go-ahead run in the seventh, and scoring the winning run on a Jeff Mathis double.

As much as the Yankees owed much of their 2-0 lead to their opponent's playing nervous baseball, making mistakes and ill-advised decisions at critical times, as if the moment were too big, the Angels are now back in the series because of their relentless hitting and tough pitching (as well as the endless tinkering of Yankees manager Joe Girardi that finally blew up in his face). New York's 3-0 lead in Game 3 could have been much larger, but the Yankees were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base.

Mike Scioscia These types of series, they change in a heartbeat. One win, one good inning, this is something that gives you momentum that can get you going in the right direction, and that's what we have to keep our focus on.

-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia

Errors in judgment by the Angels and Yankees have not undermined the theater of this postseason. Indeed, the drama has only been enhanced by anticipation: Would Girardi pay for oddly replacing a left-hander (Damaso Marte) with a left-hander (Phil Coke)? Would the Angels take advantage of Girardi's inexplicably lifting David Robertson in the 11th after Robertson had retired the first two batters of the inning for the less-effective Alfredo Aceves? Would they make him pay for removing left fielder Johnny Damon for Game 2 hero Jerry Hairston Jr., even though the defensive switch stripped the Yankees of their designated hitter and of Damon, who had homered earlier in Game 3? (When Girardi made the move, the Angels already had a runner in scoring position for a couple of batters in the bottom of the 10th.)

For the first two games of the series, the answer had been no. The Angels have played too many tough games and are too talented a team to not finally strike the gold that had been handed them. For a time, mostly up until the midpoint of Game 3, it appeared the power of the Yankees would be the makeup that covered all bruises -- the inability to hit with runners in scoring position, the manager's need to become overly involved -- until Kendrick and Mathis rewrote what was rapidly becoming a coronation.

"These types of series, they change in a heartbeat," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "One win, one good inning, this is something that gives you momentum that can get you going in the right direction, and that's what we have to keep our focus on."

Title teams like to think in terms of destiny, that things happen when it's your year. Mathis hit .211 during the regular season, the lowest average by anyone with a walk-off hit in a postseason game. He did not even start Game 3 because of his inability to hit. Scioscia went with Mike Napoli at catcher to try to counter the Yankees' powerful lineup.

But it was Mathis who doubled off Phil Hughes to lead off the 10th inning, and the Angels nearly won it then -- thwarted only by the great Mariano Rivera, who pitched around the double, his own erroneous throw to erase Mathis on Erick Aybar's sacrifice bunt, and the heart of the Angels' order.

Never mind, Girardi tinkered again in the 11th and Mathis busted Aceves and won the game, elevating Mathis into the lead of a statistic he'd rather avoid, but might enjoy today:

But now Sabathia awaits, and much like Alex Rodriguez -- who hit a home run in the fourth inning of Game 3 off Jered Weaver that landed somewhere near Pomona, Calif. -- Sabathia has used this postseason to create a new narrative for himself. He is pitching on three days' rest, which he did for a month of pressure baseball last season with the Milwaukee Brewers to no ill effects. His pitching rest has been spotty -- he hadn't pitched in nine days between Game 1 of the Division Series against Minnesota and the ALCS opener -- but Sabathia, at 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds, has always said his size makes irregular rest a nonissue for him.

What is more of an issue is his ability to pitch like an ace. Will he erase the poor feelings of Game 3 for the Yankees, or will the Angels return him to earth? It was only 2½ weeks ago, at the beginning of the postseason, that Sabathia drew unfavorable comparisons to great Dodgers starter Don Newcombe as the best pitcher to perform the worst in the postseason. Sabathia began October with a career 7.92 postseason ERA, but first against the Twins and later in Game 1 against the Angels -- a team which had given him trouble in the past -- he has proven himself to be a formidable adversary.

"[The Angels] have a tough team. This is going to be a tough series," Yankees starter Andy Pettitte said. "And this is a tough place to play. But we have C going tomorrow."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.