Commentary

Angels manage to keep season going

Two decisions by Scioscia not the focus thanks to win over Yankees in Game 5

Originally Published: October 22, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Shortly after Nick Swisher's pop fly settled into Erick Aybar's glove for the final out in a 7-6 win over the Yankees on Thursday, Angels manager Mike Scioscia plopped into his office chair and reflected upon the victory that saved his team's season. For two more days, at least.

A big red and blue "A" adorned the wall behind Scioscia, and his desk was covered in enough paper to keep your friendly neighborhood TARP administrator busy for a month. There were crisp white sheets chock-full of stats, individual matchups and all the inside information that managers rely on come crunch time.

But as Scioscia well knows, it all comes down to the players. If they execute, you're a genius. If they don't, you're a dope.

"I don't think the word 'genius' has ever been used in a sentence with me," Scioscia said. "But you've gotta make moves and live with them."

With their season hanging by a thread, the Angels showed enough character and chutzpah to ensure themselves an all-expenses-paid weekend in the Bronx. Trailing New York 3-2 in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, they'll send Joe Saunders to the mound against Andy Pettitte on Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, with the goal of forcing a seventh game Sunday.

"There's always a chance," third baseman Chone Figgins said. "We live to fight another day."

As an added bonus, the Angels saved their manager from death by a million tweets.

There were several performances worth remembering from Game 5. Angels catcher Jeff Mathis became the first player to record six straight hits in the postseason since the Cubs' Kenny Lofton in 2003. First baseman Kendry Morales, hitting .200 in the playoffs, produced the game-winning hit. And the Angels showed lots of resourcefulness in fashioning another come-from-behind win against New York.

[+] EnlargeJohn Lackey
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images John Lackey didn't want to leave the game, but Angels manager Mike Scioscia went to the bullpen in the seventh anyway.

But for Southern California baseball fans and Internet second-guessers, two decisions by Scioscia would have made for bountiful talk-show fodder if the Angels' season had ended Thursday. Ron Gardenhire, Terry Francona, Jim Tracy, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre are all sitting at home, but Scioscia lives to manage another day because his closer, Brian Fuentes, was slightly less of a train wreck than two of the relievers who preceded him.

Angels starter John Lackey, true to his bulldog reputation, was brilliant through six innings. He worked out of a first-inning jam, struck out the side in the fifth, and made an early lead stand up to carry a 4-0 advantage into the seventh.

That's when things unraveled. Lackey gave up a one-out double to Melky Cabrera, then appeared to have Jorge Posada struck out on a low inside fastball. But home plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth wouldn't bite, and Lackey, in a major show of emotion, threw his arms wide in disgust. A walk to Posada soon followed.

"I'm sure you guys all saw the replay," Lackey told reporters after the game. "It is what it is."

After Lackey walked Derek Jeter to load the bases and retired Johnny Damon on a fly ball for the second out, he was preparing to pitch to Mark Teixeira when Scioscia emerged from the dugout and pried the baseball from his hand. Even if Lackey had wanted to plead his case, it would have been impossible, since Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher had visited the mound earlier in the inning.

The TV cameras caught Lackey mouthing an expletive and repeatedly telling Scioscia, "This [game] is mine." Lackey's resistance to leaving the game came as no surprise to his teammates.

"I knew that wasn't going to go well," Figgins said. "[Lackey] is one of those guys who wants to stay in there. If he has the opportunity to be out there, he feels like he deserves to lose it or win it. That's an ace right there."

Scioscia made the call because Teixeira, a switch-hitter, hit 30 of his 39 homers this season from the left side, and he would have to turn around and bat from the right side against lefty Darren Oliver.

"In my heart, I said, 'John stays in there and pitches until we win or lose.' But my head said, 'Let's turn [Teixeira] around,'" Scioscia said.

The decision quickly proved disastrous. Teixeira cleared the bases with a double, and by the time Oliver and Kevin Jepsen were through, the Angels' 4-0 lead had turned into a 6-4 deficit.

The Angels rallied for three runs against the New York bullpen in the bottom of the seventh, but Scioscia had another big decision in front of him. After Jered Weaver retired the Yankees' in order in the eighth, Scioscia had a choice: He could bring Weaver back out for the ninth, or go with Fuentes, who recorded a major league-high 48 saves this season but tends to live on the edge.

Scioscia opted for Fuentes but came perilously close to regretting it. Fuentes induced two quick outs against Damon and Teixeira, and then the Angels intentionally walked Alex Rodriguez -- who had homered against Fuentes earlier in the series -- even though that meant bringing Hideki Matsui to the plate as the potential go-ahead run.

A walk, a hit batsman and a 3-2 count later, Swisher stood at the plate with a chance to give New York the lead and set up Mariano Rivera for the win and the series in the bottom of the ninth. How much tension could a ballpark take?

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Harry How/Getty Images The Angels have reason to celebrate -- their season and the ALCS will continue.

"I've just got to make my pitch there," Fuentes said. "It's not like my life flashes before my eyes and I'm thinking, 'This is the ultimate moment.' At the same time, I was really hoping for some action. It's anticlimactic when you throw a 3-2 pitch with the bases drunk and the guy fouls it back, and you're like, 'Oh god. Here we go again.'"

Fuentes hit his spot with a fastball, and 45,113 fans and a dugout full of Angels were able to exhale as Swisher's weak fly ball nestled into Aybar's glove.

If the Angels had lost this game, the focus would have shifted to a New York-Philadelphia World Series and all the other ancillary things going on in the baseball world -- from Bobby Valentine's job status to the Frank and Jamie McCourt "War of the Roses" saga in Los Angeles.

Now there's a baseball game left to be played in the Bronx on Saturday, and if you didn't know better, you'd think the Angels relish being in this position.

"We battle," Torii Hunter said. "Our backs are against the wall, man. And we're just kicking, punching, scratching and doing whatever we've got to do to get off that wall."

The Angels couldn't care less that the weather report calls for a 90 percent chance of rain Saturday.

"It's the playoffs," Hunter. "We can play in two degrees with snow and hail at the same time, and we're going to play. If they say game time, I'm ready."

Overcast skies never looked so pretty to a baseball team. There's a Game 6 in the forecast, and that sure beats the alternative.

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