Saturday October 4th, 2008

This is not Chicago, and these are not the Cubs, so there will be no beer-fueled dirges about goats or cats or other inhuman forces that conspired against the home team. The Angels, after all, have not had to wait 100 years for a championship. But when they look back on the great flameout of 2008, they will ache just the same.

The Cubs had the best record in one league, the Angels the best record in the other. The Cubs, a century removed from their last World Series title, believed it was finally their time. The Angels, six years from their last title, were sure it was theirs. Together, the two teams won a combined 197 games, a prodigious body of work, guaranteeing themselves home-field advantage and an inside track to the Series.

They have gone from clear favorites to distant long-shots, in just two games. The Cubs are down 0-2 heading to Los Angeles and the Angels are down 0-2 heading to Boston. It is hard to say which team has a more precarious road in front of them, but the Angels must face Josh Beckett on Sunday, and he is only regarded as the finest big-game pitcher in the sport, whether his oblique is strained or not.

The Angels can take some solace knowing that they had the best road record in the majors this season, 50-31, and swept a series at Fenway Park in July. But the Angels have proven over and over again in the past five years that they are a much better team in July than they are in October. They fell to the Red Sox again on Friday night in Game 2 of their American League Division Series, 7-5 (Recap | Box Score), their ninth straight postseason loss, and their 11th straight postseason loss to the Red Sox.

This one was not as excruciating as Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, but it was close. In '86, the Angels led the Red Sox 5-4 in the ninth inning, when closer Donnie Moore gave up a two-run homer to Dave Henderson. On Friday, the Angels and the Red Sox were tied 5-5 in the ninth, when closer Francisco Rodriguez gave up a two-run homer to J.D. Drew. In some ways, Drew's blast was more alarming than Henderson's, considering that Rodriguez saved a major league record 62 games this season, and Drew is playing with a bad back.

Just a few days ago, Drew was not sure he would see the field in this series. He played in only two games over the last six weeks of the season, hurting even when he walked. But in the sixth inning Friday, he leapt against the wall in right field to take an extra-base hit away from Garret Anderson, and grinned as he jogged back to the dugout. Clearly, Drew's back was not bothering him. When he came up in the ninth, he turned on a changeup from K-Rod, yanking it over the right-center field fence.

"I though at some point I was going to have to shut it down and watch the team go through the playoffs," Drew said. "My legs are coming back underneath me."

In Game 5 of the '86 ALCS, the Red Sox trailed 5-2 in the ninth inning. On Friday, the Angels trailed 5-1 in the middle of the fourth inning, but chipped away at the deficit until they tied the score in the eighth. It came down to two of the best closers in baseball, Rodriguez and Jonathan Papelbon. Rodriguez gave up two runs in the ninth and Papelbon did not give up any. Once again, the regular-season numbers did not mean a thing. Papelbon still has not allowed an earned run in his postseason career.

If the Angels want to assign blame, they can point in any number of directions, but they should start with the middle of their infield. Second baseman Howie Kendrick is 0-for-9 in the series with five strikeouts and 12 runners left on base. Shortstop Erick Aybar is 0-for-8 with two strikeouts, six runners left on base and an error. They both came up with the bases loaded in the seventh inning Friday and struck out.

Now they need two wins at Fenway Park just to prolong their season. The Angels and the Cubs, supposedly the best teams in baseball, have joined one another on the brink.

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