Thursday, January 21, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California

I think we covered all of their geographical names. I'll come back and update the title later if they decide to go even broader at some point, like "The Entire West Coast of North America Angels."

Anway... By early expansion team standards, the Angels got off to a pretty solid start; they had a winning record in their second year, and added three more during their first decade of play. From 1979-86, they won the AL West 3 times in 8 years - not exactly dynasty material, but solid, reliable contention, even if they did lose all three ALCSs (two of them in pretty heartbreaking fashion). They slipped back into mediocrity-or-worse for most of the next decade and a half, though, with only one season of more than 85 wins.

In 2001, the Seattle Mariners set an AL record with 116 regular season wins. The Oakland A's won a mere 102 games - but they went 63-18 over the second half of the season, one of the best last-81 records in a very long time. The Angels, meanwhile, shared a division with both of those teams, and went a combined 10-29 against them, which helped keep their record down to 75-87.

The next year, the Angels began 6-14 - and with Seattle having sprinted out to a 17-4 opening, the season was not off to anything resembling a promising start. But the team righted itself with striking rapidity, winning 21 of its next 24 games and charging into the thick of a marvelous three-way divisional race. The Mariners would cool off from their hot start (obviously), but still held onto first place until late August, before slipping to a 93-win, third-place finish. The Angels would hang tight for a little longer, but Oakland's second-half prowess would eventually prove too much again, as they closed the season 57-24 over their last 81 games and captured the AL West title.

But in 2002, the 99-win Angels had another route to the playoffs, and took it, cruising to the AL Wild Card. Naturally, their success brought them up against a rather formidable foe - the four-titles-in-the-last-six-years Yankees. New York flexed its muscles early, posting a four-run eighth inning to grab an 8-5 win in the first game. Which brings us to...

2002 ALDS Game 2: Angels 8, Yankees 6. Anaheim's Kevin Appier was 34 years old and making his second career postseason start. New York's Andy Pettitte was four years younger, and making playoff start number 25.

Anaheim pulled ahead early when Tim Salmon homered in the top of the first. Appier allowed a Derek Jeter single and walked Jason Giambi in the bottom of the inning, but stranded both men, and the Angels extended their lead in the second. Scott Spiezio's one-out homer made it a 2-0 game, and singles by Shawn Wooten, Bengie Molina, and Benji Gil added a run on top of that. Appier plunked Raul Mondesi in the home second, but allowed nothing else, and the lead grew yet again in the top of the third on a Garret Anderson single, a Troy Glaus flyout that was deep enough to advance the runner to second, and an RBI hit by Spiezio.

The Yankees came back, of course; they usually did. Jeter started things off with a homer in the bottom of the third. Orlando Hernandez relieved Pettitte in the fourth and set the Angels down in order, and Robin Ventura led off the bottom of the inning with a single. Nick Johnson then drew a one-out walk, and after the second out, Juan Rivera hit... apparently a two-run single with runners on first and second? Rivera ended the play on second, but the play-by-play says he took second on the throw home. Maybe the runners were going, but Robin Ventura and Nick Johnson wouldn't seem to be the likeliest combination of runners to double-steal with, and the count wasn't full... so I honestly have no idea what happened here. But whatever it was, New York had closed to within 4-3.

Hernandez was perfect again in the fifth, and Appier had to work around a Jeter single and a Giambi walk in the bottom of the inning. He did so, but after another 1-2-3 effort from El Duque, Francisco Rodriguez relieved in the bottom of the sixth and gave up a single to Mondesi and a go-ahead two-run homer to Alfonso Soriano.

The Angels finally put a runner on against Hernandez in the seventh, as Darin Erstad reached second on a single-and-error before being stranded. Rodriguez kept the Yanks in check in the bottom of the inning, and Anaheim had a rather more productive rally in the top of the eighth, as Anderson and Glaus hit back-to-back homers to retake the lead. Hernandez was quickly pulled for Steve Karsay, who allowed a one-out single to Wooten; pinch runner Chone Figgins then stole second, moved to third on a Molina single, and scored when Adam Kennedy greeted Mike Stanton with a sacrifice fly.

Being the Yankees, the Yankees did not go quietly. Ben Weber relieved in the bottom of the eighth and allowed one-out singles to Johnson and Mondesi. Brendan Donnelly took over to strike out pinch hitter John Vander Wal; Troy Percival was then summoned for a four-out save, which got off to an inauspicious start when his first pitch hit Soriano. He recovered to strike out Jeter, leaving the bases loaded with the two-run lead still in place.

Jeff Weaver assumed pitching duties in the top of the ninth; he allowed singles to Anderson and Glaus, followed by a Spiezio double that pushed the Anaheim advantage to 8-5. After an intentional walk loaded the bases, Molina hit into a double play to end the inning. The Yanks tried again in the bottom of the ninth, starting with a Giambi single; one out later, Ventura and Jorge Posada singled to pull the team back within two runs and bring the winning run to the plate. But Johnson struck out and Mondesi popped up, and the Angels had evened the series.

I'm reluctant to assign undue importance to the late innings of this game, because the inclination to do so is inevitably affected by hindsight. But consider the following: The Angels had never won a playoff series coming into this game, and had not made the postseason in 15 years. The Yankees had won the last four AL pennants. Moreover, the Yankees came back in the eighth inning to win Game 1, and rallied in the sixth to pull ahead in Game 2.

If there's ever been a situation in which a mental toughness narrative was justified, it may well be this one. It's an argument that gained support as the playoffs went on; the Angels would win both of their home games to clinch the LDS, take the ALCS in five, and slipped past the Bonds-led Giants in a seven-game World Series.

One of the games of that World Series leads off our honorable mention section; the Angels won Game 2 11-10, which is a score that will generally produce at least an interesting game, especially if it's tied going into the eighth. The other options are all from series that did not work out well for the team. Their victory in Game 3 of the 2008 ALDS against the Red Sox grades out as one of the 30 most exciting playoff games ever (far better than the one I selected), but it was the only game they won in that series. And the other two options - 2009 ALCS Game 3 and 1986 ALCS Game 4 - not only came in series that the team lost, but were immediately adjacent to defeats that were more painful than the accompanying victories were exciting.

When the Angels first came into being as a major league team, the stadium they played in was... Wrigley Field. There's another team that has also spent some time in a park by that name, and we'll be visiting them next.

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