- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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BOSTON -- The Angels still haven't brought their A-game to the American League Division Series. They're good for at least one baserunning gaffe and defensive hiccup every night. And judging from their .200 batting average with men in scoring position, everyone in the lineup feels a special burden to produce that difference-making knock.
If you just tuned in unaware and watched this version of the Angels, with their smorgasbord of flaws, you might be tempted to assume that all those head-to-head meetings with Oakland, Seattle and Texas played a big role in this team winning 100 games for the first time in franchise history.
The important thing is, there's still baseball left to be played in 2008. An Arthur Conan Doyle-like fog descended over Fenway Park as Sunday night spilled into Monday morning. But as the Angels jumped the dugout railing shortly before 1 a.m. ET to celebrate a 5-4, 12-inning victory over Boston , it was with the exuberance of little kids on a Chuck E. Cheese run.
The Angels will send John Lackey to the mound against Jon Lester on Monday night in Game 4. Down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, they have the odds stacked against them. But they're still alive, and that's a heck of a lot more than can be said for the Brewers and the Cubs.
A couple of hours before Los Angeles and Boston took the field Sunday, manager Mike Scioscia refused to even address a hypothetical question equating the Angels' postseason travails to those of the Cubs.
"We're not getting eliminated [Sunday], so I'm not going to answer that question," Scioscia said.
After Erick Aybar's bloop single scored Mike Napoli with the go-ahead run and Jered Weaver nailed it down with a scoreless bottom of the 12th, the Angels refused to dwell on how close their season had come to extinction. There are scouting reports to be perused and batting practice hacks to be taken for one more day, at least, and that'll do for now.
"When you're in the playoffs and you get a win, everything else goes out the window," said center fielder Torii Hunter, the Angels' resident sunshine dispenser and quote machine. "I don't care what happened in this game. That W makes everything so beautiful. It's so lovely outside -- it's peaches and cream right now."
Recent history lends a strange dynamic that makes this series difficult to predict. Entering Sunday's game, the Angels had dropped 11 straight postseason meetings with Boston -- fostering the impression that the Red Sox were "in their heads." Never mind that two of those losses came way back in 1986.
It's not as if the Red Sox have been stomping the Angels of late. Los Angeles captured the regular season series 8-1 and had a chance to win each of the first two Division Series games in Anaheim. Jason Bay spoiled a fine outing by Lackey with a two-run homer in the series opener, and the Angels nearly won Game 2 after spotting the Red Sox a 4-0, first-inning lead.
The one constant is the Angels' failure to produce the big hit to bust things open. They've gone 7-for-35 with runners in scoring position and come up empty on several occasions when a liner to the gap could have changed the complexion of the series.
In Game 1, Lester loaded the bases in the first inning only to escape on a Howie Kendrick groundout. It's as if that sequence set the tone for everything since.
"They are not giving in," Mark Teixeira said of the Red Sox pitchers. "It's kind of a bend-but-don't-break mentality. They're doing a great job of not giving us much to hit with runners on base."
Now comes the mental chess game that results from seeing the same starter twice in a five-day span. After dominating the Angels in the series opener, does Lester take the same approach or vary his pitch pattern to keep the L.A. hitters off balance?
"If I was him, I'd pitch the same way he did the first time," Hunter said. "When a guy is pounding his fastball and cutter in and then he throws a curveball, I mean, what are you supposed to do? He's got some of the nastiest stuff from the left side in the game."
Lackey is 2-4 with a 6.34 career ERA at Fenway Park, but he pitched a complete game two-hitter his last time here in late July. And his teammates make it clear there is no one they would rather have on the mound in a big game.
Lackey gained a lot of currency pitching the World Series clincher against San Francisco in 2002, and it's stuck. When his fellow Angels aren't referring to him as a "horse," they're calling him a "bulldog." Every reference is either canine or equine.
Teammate Scot Shields cited Lackey's early experiences as a high school football quarterback in Texas as testament to his ability to handle pressure. Shields couldn't pinpoint precisely why, but he knows Lackey well enough to discern that his buddy is dying to take the ball Monday night.
"I'll be honest with you -- I don't know if there's anybody in the big leagues that I'd rather give the ball to with a series on the line," Shields said. "It's just the way he goes about his business and his track record and his bulldogged-ness, or whatever you'd want to call it."
The Angels are likely to approach Game 4 with the free-spirited zeal of a team that knows it's gotten a reprieve. Their season easily could have ended in the 10th inning Sunday night, when closer Francisco Rodriguez loaded the bases and went down 2-0 on Jed Lowrie only to induce an inning-ending fly out.
It was one of several hyperventilation-worthy moments in the Angels' dugout, but the Los Angeles players were loving every minute. Really.
"I never have a doubt as long as we have at-bats left, innings left and outs left," Hunter said. "Being a professional baseball player, there's no way you're going to say, 'Well, we lost this one.' You just can't think that."
Said Teixeira: "When I watch a team that I root for in football or basketball, I'm more nervous than I am in a game like this. We're having fun out there. Sure, you're going to go out and make mistakes. But at the same time, we're enjoying the heck out of it."
The Angels have plenty of time left this year for golf, football tailgating parties and, in the case of Teixeira and K-Rod, pursuing mega-millions on the free-agent market. Right now, they have at least one more game on the 2008 schedule. And that sure beats the alternative.
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