Commentary

For Angels, it all begins with Lackey

Facing elimination, the Halos aren't dead yet … and here are the reasons

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Angels were mauled Tuesday on their home field 10-1 by a Yankees team that took a 5-0 lead and then, smelling blood, ran the bases hard and poured on five more runs as Game 4 continued.

If the Freeway Series now seems as remote as the Family Feud Series (Joe Torre versus the Yankees), the Amtrak Series (Phillies versus Yankees) is beginning to take on an air of inevitability.

But not yet …

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJohn Lackey is 1-1 with a 1.38 ERA in two starts this postseason.

Angels third baseman Chone Figgins said he repeats the mantra of Manny Ramirez, uttered when the Red Sox trailed the Indians 3-1 in the 2007 American League Championship Series. "What did he say?" Figgins said. "'It's not the end of the world?' And he got ridiculed for it, but look what happened: They won, and they won again, and won the series. I keep thinking back to that."

In other words, the Yankees hold a 3-1 lead, but the Angels believe they can win the next three games. The Yankees are on the brink of the World Series, but the two players chiefly responsible for putting the Angels on the edge of winter -- CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez -- both know the unwelcome feeling of spectacular collapse.

In the Yankees' first three games of the '04 ALCS against Boston, Rodriguez was 6-for-14 with seven runs scored, three RBIs and a home run. In the ensuing four losses, he went 2-for-17 with one run scored, two RBIs and a home run.

Sabathia was on the 2007 Indians team that blew a 3-1 series lead to the Red Sox, and he posted an 0-2 record and a 10.45 ERA in that series. The Indians lost the final three games by scores of 7-1, 12-2 and 11-2.

The 2009 version of neither Sabathia nor Rodriguez bears any resemblance to its past, but it is this history that both sides say gives them an advantage; the Yankees because 2004 proved that no series is over until the fourth victory, the Angels because history shows that their desperate situation is not fatal.

The Angels are up against the wall, but don't underestimate these five reasons why they can still win the series.

1. John Lackey pitching at home

If the Angels looked as though they would rather have been strolling the Huntington Beach boardwalk than trying to hit in 40-degree weather in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium, ace John Lackey was different than his counterparts. Lackey is a tough, proven winner who beat the Giants in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series as a rookie.

In Game 1, he was resolute, if not stellar, giving up two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings, and is usually tough on the Yankees. The numbers do not give Lackey a big home advantage, but his team has great confidence in him heading into Game 5. In 41 home starts over the past three years, Lackey is 19-12 with a 3.77 ERA, slightly higher than his overall ERA of 3.48 during that period.

"He's our ace for a reason," Figgins said. "If we're going down, we're going down with the big guy."

2. They don't panic

There has been a boa constrictor sort of personality to the way the Yankees have performed in the postseason, slowly squeezing the life out of their opponents, even when the games appear to be close on the final scoreboard. Throughout the series, the Angels have made uncharacteristic mistakes, forced by the immense specter of the Yankees' offense to attempt spectacular, often unwise plays.

Torii Hunter When you get a beatdown, you have to get up and fight. You have to get to that next game. … You can't just give up. That's part of being a baseball player, part of being a competitor.

-- Angels center fielder Torii Hunter

One such example was Maicer Izturis' game-ending error in Game 2, while another was Howie Kendrick's unsuccessful attempt to erase Alex Rodriguez at home in the fourth inning of Game 4 instead of taking the sure out on Robinson Cano at first. Cano later scored on a Melky Cabrera base hit.

The Angels have been shaky, but some players say they should be judged on a larger sample, meaning their steady approach during the regular season. They say that little should be read into their getting hammered at home in Game 4, that it is not a sign their wills have been broken.

"Doesn't matter a bit. We lost the game. We lost the game, whether by one run or by 10," center fielder Torii Hunter said. "They gave us a beatdown. When you get a beatdown, you have to get up and fight. You have to get to that next game. They shut us down. CC shut us down. [Mariano] Rivera shut us down. You can't just give up. That's part of being a baseball player, part of being a competitor."

3. They are solid on the road

The Angels arrived home down 2-0 in the series, but they feel they should have come home with a split. During the regular season, Los Angeles won 48 road games, best in the American League and tied with Philadelphia for the best mark in the majors.

The Angels looked uncomfortable in the cold of Yankee Stadium, but the truth is that they held a 3-2 lead in the 11th inning of Game 2; they were three outs away from splitting the series and changing its dynamic. They scored only five fewer runs on the road than at home in the regular season and, offensively, are largely unchanged regardless of the venue.

In addition, there is the added shift in momentum that works to their advantage. If the Angels are fortunate enough to play in New York on Saturday, it will mean they won Game 5, which means the pressure to avoid a seventh game -- and a possible repeat of the 2004 collapse -- lays squarely on the shoulders of the Yankees. These are not small considerations.

"The Yankees are obviously closer than we are to the next level, but they're not there yet," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "And they're going to have challenges that we're going to bring to the field that they're going to have to overcome … As you start to build momentum back into your favor and play better, those challenges you bring on the field become stronger and stronger, and that's what we need to do."

4. Joe Saunders, unintimidated

A Game 6 in New York would place Joe Saunders on the mound. Saunders has been one of the Angels' best pitchers in this series, along with relievers Darren Oliver and Ervin Santana. Not only did Saunders win a team-best 16 games during the regular season, but he was terrific in outpitching A.J. Burnett in Game 2.

Most impressive about Saunders was his toughness against a Yankees lineup that gave him problems during the regular season. In the second inning of Game 2, Saunders gave up a two-out walk to Nick Swisher, who scored on a triple by Robinson Cano. Then, he struck out Melky Cabrera to end the inning.

The next inning, Derek Jeter banged a one-out home run to make it 2-0 and Johnny Damon followed Jeter with a single to left. The Stadium began to rock and Saunders appeared to be on the ropes.

However, Saunders not only escaped the inning without giving up more runs but also got stronger as Burnett struggled, forcing three double plays in his final three innings of work. A Game 6 versus Saunders would not be a cakewalk for the Yankees.

5. Fourth one is always the hardest

In the Yankees clubhouse on Wednesday, Jorge Posada and CC Sabathia both recalled bitter playoff losses when they were on the verge of the World Series. "It's not something we have to express, but everyone in here knows it," Posada said. "Everyone knows this series isn't over. Everyone knows we haven't accomplished our goals."

Jeter said the same. "We've done nothing yet."

Mike Scioscia It's not going to be easy for [the Yankees] to close this out. We want to play our game. This isn't done until the fourth game is won. We obviously have no margin of error.

-- Angels manager Mike Scioscia

And Mark Teixeira echoed Jeter: "We know we're in for a fight. Lackey is such a competitor. He's a bulldog."

And in the Angels clubhouse, Hunter suggested that desperation is at hand.

"This is it for us," Hunter said. "Our last stand."

And finally, Scioscia: "We have the ability to do to the Yankees what the Yankees have done to us so far on the mound with guys like John Lackey and Joe Saunders going again, and then having either [Scott] Kazmir or [Jered] Weaver following up in Game 7. These guys have the ability to shut down good offenses. We're obviously going to need that.

"So, it's not going to be easy. It's not going to be easy for them to close this out. We want to play our game. This isn't done until the fourth game is won. We obviously have no margin of error."

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.