Commentary

Angels seething after being squeezed out of the playoffs

Updated: October 7, 2008, 6:28 PM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- Torii Hunter sat in his chair, mad as hell. John Lackey said he wanted to throw somebody through a wall. Other players privately said they were more than upset; they were angry.

And it's understandable. The Angels just lost their season -- their 100-win season -- to a team they felt they were better than, and on a play that some felt was the wrong call. When Reggie Willits was tagged out on a failed suicide squeeze in the top of the ninth inning, with the score tied at 2 and a 2-0 count to shortstop Erick Aybar, it was as if the Angels' worst nightmare were lived out right in front of them. Because just five batters later, the Red Sox were celebrating a 3-2 victory over the Angels and going on to face the Rays in the American League Championship Series.

"That's the way we've played, ever since spring training," Willits said of the Angels' aggressive style. "It just one of those things; it just happens. We came up short -- as a team we came up short."

It's unfair to say one play called by manager Mike Scioscia lost this series, but in the aftermath of Aybar missing the bunt (he had nine sacrifices this season and nine bunt hits) and catcher Jason Varitek catching Willits just before he got back to third base safely -- right in front of the Los Angeles dugout -- it seemed a cruel way to watch a potential win soon turn into an offseason of discontent.

"I didn't like [the call]," one player said shortly after the game, still in disbelief the Angels had lost.

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Added Scioscia: "I thought it was a good situation for us. With a guy at third base, with the guy at the plate and the count we had. And it didn't work out."

And so the best team in baseball is once again going home. History has shown that supreme prowess in the regular season doesn't always translate into titles. Since 1990, only the 1998 Yankees and 2007 Red Sox finished with the best record in baseball and won the World Series. Now you can add the 2008 Angels to the list of those who came up short.

Scioscia addressed his team after it lost, yet again, to the Red Sox. He thanked them for their hard, scrappy play, and told them to keep their heads held high. It was of little comfort to the players, some of whom held their heads in their hands while facing their lockers.

And it must have felt like déjà vu to some of the Angels, who were swept by Boston a year ago in the first round. But Lackey wanted none of it.

"It's way different than last year," said Lackey, who was 0-1 with a 2.63 ERA in two starts this postseason. "We are way better than they are. We lost to a team not as good as us."

[+] EnlargeSqueeze
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe Angels' aggressive play cost them dearly in the ninth inning. Erick Aybar whiffed on a squeeze play, allowing Boston catcher Jason Varitek to run down Reggie Willits, the potential go-ahead run.
Then Lackey was asked to describe the feeling in the clubhouse, and without hesitation and with clear irritation, he shot back, "Like I want to throw somebody through a wall."

He was not joking; his anger was palpable. Lackey pitched admirably, allowing two runs in seven innings Monday night. Boston scored both in the fifth inning, the first on a groundout by Jacoby Ellsbury and the second on a double to left field by Dustin Pedroia, who recorded his first and only hit of the entire series. Lackey was unimpressed.

"[On Sunday] they scored on a pop fly they called a hit, which is a joke," said Lackey, referring to a popup that was misplayed into three runs. "[On Monday], they score on a broken-bat ground ball and a fly ball anywhere else in America [except in Fenway Park]. And [Pedroia's] fist-pumping on second like he did something great."

Lackey was seething, and he wasn't the only one. Torii Hunter, the leader of this team, the one who shows more emotion than nearly almost any player, sat at his locker, facing the room, fuming. He kept calling himself a failure. He was a failure for not getting his team out of the first round of the playoffs again, his fourth straight trip without sniffing the second round. He, like many, was in disbelief.

"I'm pissed off," Hunter said. "I'm just upset, and it's going to be with me for a while. I'm not going to sit here and pretend I'm happy."

And he shouldn't be. The Angels had their ace on the mound, they had a "momentum shift" on their side after they won Game 3 in 12 innings, and they needed just one more win to return home for Game 5. They had all the hope in the world, with team officials privately feeling confident that this series would be heading back to the West Coast.

And then they had to face Jon Lester, at Fenway Park, where he hardly ever loses. The Angels had to play their style of baseball, which they failed to do when Willits lost the foot race to Varitek. They also had to prove they could hit with runners in scoring position, and Hunter was the only one who made that happen.

So how did this happen? The Angels were 8-1 with a 3.60 ERA against Boston in the regular season, but they went 1-3 with a 4.19 ERA against them in the Division Series.

The Angels hit .305 and scored 61 runs against the Red Sox in nine regular-season games this year, but could only muster a .273 average with 13 runs in four playoff games this past week.

But above all, perhaps the real culprit was their dreary numbers with runners in scoring position: 8-of-40 in this series. And that included Hunter's two-out single in the eighth. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hunter was 5-for-11, and the rest of the team was 3-for-29. The Angels' center fielder practically willed his team to any sort of success in this series. And Monday night, he slapped his hands and screamed at his dugout anytime he was able to do anything, including his enormous game-tying hit.

And then after the game, Torii Hunter did something most thought he could never do.

"I'm at a loss for words," he said.

He is not alone. Unfortunately for Hunter and the rest of the team, they will have an entire offseason to collect their thoughts.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.

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