Commentary

Angels create their own celebration

L.A. answers Yankees' wild Game 2 win with one of its own in Game 3 of the ALCS

Originally Published: October 19, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The Angels play in the shadow of the Matterhorn Bobsleds, so they're familiar with the elements that define a good thrill ride. If it features vertiginous highs, plunges to vomit-inducing dips, and produces a woozy, yet satisfying sensation as the seat belts click open and the customers spill out on the concourse, it's a surefire winner.

Which brings us to the 2009 American League Championship Series.

Early Sunday morning in the Bronx, the Angels stood and watched in shock as Maicer Izturis's errant throw rolled into left field and allowed Jerry Hairston to score the game winner for New York in the bottom of the 13th inning. Manager Mike Scioscia and his Angels were wet, cold and down two games to none to a Yankees team that was starting to project an air of invincibility.

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Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe Yankees gathered 'round home plate in Game 2. It was the Angels' turn in Game 3.

But jubilation and despair frequently cross paths in October, and after a cross-country flight and plenty of tense moments, the Angels were the guys celebrating. Game 3 of the series ended with Jeff Mathis doubling home Howie Kendrick, giving the Angels a 5-4, 11-inning victory and setting off a wild scrum in Anaheim.

The scene was eerily similar to what had taken place in the Bronx on Saturday -- only 30 degrees warmer, with no hoodies or A.J. Burnett whipped cream pies, and guys in different uniforms having all the fun.

"I just tried to stay off to the side," said Angels third baseman Chone Figgins, whose turn at-bat was fast approaching. "I'm too small to be in there jumping around."

The Angels accomplished quite a bit in the Monday matinee in Anaheim. They took some heat off right fielder Bobby Abreu, whose baserunning gaffe in the eighth inning almost made him the Nick Punto of this series. Abreu appeared distraught after he overran second base on a double and was cut down on a relay. But now he's a mere footnote.

The loss put the focus squarely on Yankees manager Joe Girardi, whose curious bullpen management suddenly made interception-prone Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez an afterthought on the call-in shows. You can only wonder: Are Girardi's ears burning 3,000 miles from home?

Most of all, the Angels' comeback injected some drama in a series that had none and reinforced the notion that a mentally strong team's fate ultimately rests in its resolve and its final at-bat. If you had a dollar for every time an Angels player used the words "We battle," it would carry a family of four through a day at Disneyland.

"It was an emotional roller coaster," center fielder Torii Hunter said. "We were up, we were down. We were pissed off one inning and happy the next. I don't want to go through that again. I'm losing my hair, man."

Fittingly enough, after Hairston jump-started a Yankees uprising Saturday in his first career postseason at-bat, the Angels received contributions from players who had endured personal setbacks in the regular season and the playoffs this year:

• There was Mathis, whose second double in two innings scored Kendrick with the game winner. Not bad for a guy who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth inning after Scioscia pinch hit for starter Mike Napoli.

Mathis hit .211 in the regular season, which prompted the Elias Sports Bureau folks to troll for this historical nugget: Mathis' batting average is the lowest ever for a player who went on to produce a walk-off hit in the postseason. He checks in just ahead of Carlos Ruiz, Dane Iorg, Joe Oliver and Mark Loretta.

"I mean, obviously, it's the biggest hit of my life," Mathis said.

• There was Kendrick, whose fifth-inning homer put the Angels on the board after they fell behind 3-0 against Andy Pettitte. Kendrick added a triple in the seventh, singled ahead of Mathis' winner and enhanced his reputation as a Yankees nemesis. He's a career .426 hitter in 108 regular-season at-bats against New York.

For several years, scouts have hailed Kendrick as the second coming of four-time batting champion Bill Madlock. But Kendrick pressed so much this season, and so clearly lost his bearings, that the Angels were forced to send him to Triple-A Salt Lake for a breather. Kendrick also entered the 2009 playoffs with a career postseason average of .148 (4-for-27).

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Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesBobby Abreu's baserunning gaffe in the eighth inning of Game 3 is just an afterthought now thanks to the Angels' win.

Hunter said that Kendrick has shown more "fire" since his return from Salt Lake in early July. Strangely enough, he also has exhibited some ice.

"I don't put any pressure on myself anymore," Kendrick said. "I don't rely on results. I can just have good at-bats and play solid defense, and try to stay loose and have fun. I think if I do that, success will happen. Success is addicting. You want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it."

• Finally, there was Vladimir Guerrero, who contributed the big single against Boston's Jonathan Papelbon in the clincher in the ALDS, but looked slow and overmatched in the first two games in New York.

In Game 2 in New York, Guerrero stranded eight baserunners -- a "small village," as Bob Uecker likes to call it. But Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher sensed the determination in Guerrero upon arrival at the park Monday. Hatcher even tried a little tough love to motivate and bring out the best in Guerrero, who goes by the nickname "Mula" in reference to his childhood days tending mules in the Dominican Republic.

"I thought it was going to be a new day for him," Hatcher said. "I went up to him and told him, 'Everybody says you're done. That's [expletive]. Prove to them you're still Mula.' He started laughing and gave me a high five. I told him, 'I believe in you, Vladdy. Please prove me right.' "

Guerrero singled in his first at-bat, walked in his second, then drilled a two-run homer to tie the score at 3-3. Guerrero now has two homers in exactly 100 career postseason at-bats.

"He's a bad-ball hitter," Pettitte said, "and those guys are almost more difficult to pitch to than a normal hitter because you can't throw it bad enough for them."

Amid the euphoria, the Angels were realistic in the clubhouse after the game. Their pitching staff gave up four solo home runs. They went hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position. They blew a huge, first-and-third opportunity against Mariano Rivera in the 10th.

But if the Angels can find a way to beat CC Sabathia in Game 4 and draw even in the series, the Yankees will have an off day to think about how well Los Angeles has handled them in recent years. The Angels are 33-20 in the regular season against New York dating back to 2003.

Just so we don't forget, the Angels also have the Rally Monkey, who took a break from his ESPN promotional duties Monday and was popping up all over the Angel Stadium scoreboard. He is one ubiquitous simian.

"Do I like the monkey?" Hunter said, repeating a reporter's question. "I do today."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer