Commentary

Angels have no answer for the dominant Beckett

Originally Published: October 3, 2007
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Even before it became clear that the Los Angeles Angels were facing Josh Beckett on a night when he possessed no-hit stuff, the severity of the Angels' situation against the Boston Red Sox already was dangerously apparent.

And when Game 1 of the Divison Series ended Wednesday, with Beckett tossing a convincing and utterly suspenseless four-hit, 4-0 shutout win, the possibility that the Angels might not win a game in this series at all seemed not so remote. At the very least, unless they find themselves and quickly, Los Angeles, after 94 wins and long stretches during the season where they appeared to be the best team in baseball, cannot win this series because doing so would entail winning a game at Fenway Park.

Josh Beckett
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJosh Beckett pitched a complete game, striking out eight and walking none, to earn the win in Game 1.
In October, the clichés fall like autumn leaves: The regular season, where the Red Sox beat the Angels six of 10 times, happened in the past. The playoffs are a whole new season where every team starts fresh. The Red Sox's dominance over the Angels the last time they met in the playoffs -- in 2004, when the Angels owned home-field advantage and were swept in three straight games -- occurred three years ago, under different circumstances with different personnel.

But the fundamental truth underscored by those past victories, that the Red Sox are a bad matchup for the Angels because Los Angeles' best pitchers do not pitch well against Boston, and perhaps most damning, that the Angels' run-and-gun, highly pressurized style of play is least equipped for dealing with the cramped, claustrophobic confines of Fenway Park, nevertheless remain constant.

"The key with the Angels is to keep those guys off the basepaths, because once they get on, they cause you all kinds of trouble," said David Ortiz, the Red Sox's designated hitter. "But when you have a guy like Beckett on the mound, who is keeping those guys off base, then it gets really tough for them."

The translation is that the Angels' lack of bombast in their lineup -- only one player, Vladimir Guerrero, hit more than 20 home runs, and nobody outside of Guerrero drove in more than 86 runs -- makes them susceptible to a place like Fenway, where it is essential to be able to turn a game with one swing of the bat. That is not the Angels' game, and against the Red Sox, especially in Boston, their need for a basher to complement the dangerous Guerrero becomes more apparent.

Beckett, fast emerging as a postseason terror, only made a daunting climb impossible. The last time he pitched in October, it was in a complete-game, 2-0 shutout of the Yankees at Yankee Stadium in clinching the 2003 World Series for the Florida Marlins. In his last four postseason starts, Beckett has thrown three shutouts.

On Wednesday, he surrendered a single to Chone Figgins to start the game then retired 19 Angels in a row. He whiffed eight batters and only two, Figgins and Maicer Izturis, even reached a three-ball count. He threw fastballs to start the game and then, with the hitters lunging, followed up with curveballs and changeups. Against a team that makes a living putting heat on pitchers and opposing defenses -- the Angels stole 139 bases this season -- Beckett was never in danger.

"He went out there and he executed his pitches, in my opinion, probably better than at any point in the season," Boston manager Terry Francona said. "He attacked the strike zone with all of his pitches, cut his fastball at times. You know, he pounded the strike zone with three great pitches."

Beckett was great, and his performance made Game 1 a mismatch, but the Angels suffer from fundamental problems against the Red Sox that put them in very dangerous territory.

The Angels are, for the most part, a legitimate third member of the American League power trio, joining the Red Sox and Yankees as a perennial, dominant force. In the first seven years of this decade, the Yankees have one World Series title and played for two others. The Red Sox have won a title and played in the American League Championship Series three times.

The Angels won the World Series in 2002, played in the ALCS again in 2005 and beat the Yankees to get there both years. The Angels have established themselves against the Yankees, beating them six of nine games this season, winning the season series the previous three years, going 18-11 in the process, and by knocking them out of the postseason each time they have faced New York.

David Ortiz
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz had two hits, including a two-run home run in the third inning, for the Red Sox.
But where the Angels haven't proven themselves as thoroughly is against Boston, where Fenway Park has a way of making this dangerous team look less than ordinary. It happened in the 2004 playoffs, where very good players, men like Figgins, crumbled under the playoff weight. It has happened during this decade, where the Red Sox have beaten the Angels now 19 of 27 games here.

And it happened to Angels starter John Lackey, who though earning a reputation as a big-game pitcher himself by beating San Francisco in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series, hasn't won a playoff game since.

And at Fenway Park, Lackey is not a big-game pitcher. He entered the game with a career ERA of 7.46 and a 1-4 record at Fenway. He watched Beckett slice through the Angels in the top of the first only to labor in his first inning, throwing 25 pitches including a long home run to Kevin Youkilis that turned out to be the ballgame. In the third, the pile-on began, with a hard double by Youkilis and a booming home run by Ortiz, who continues to torture Lackey.

The last time Lackey pitched here, on Aug. 17, he gave up six runs in the first inning, including a two-run home run to Ortiz in what would turned into an 8-4 loss. Ortiz went 2-for-2 with a walk against Lackey. He is 12-for-28 with three home runs and 11 RBIs against the Angels' best pitcher.

When Lackey did recover, as he did in the middle innings, it was far too late, basically a 12-foot double-bogey putt.

The Series is but one game old, but the Angels are clearly on the mat, seeking the wide open spaces of their home park that will allow them to rediscover their style. But while they are here in Boston, they also need to reconcile their differences with Fenway Park, or their season, as they will quickly discover, will soon be over.

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

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