Tuesday October 6th, 2009

The Angels and Red Sox are not traditional rivals, but their playoff meetings are becoming an annual occurrence, with the Red Sox prevailing and the Angels wondering why they can't ever draw someone else. The Angels, traditionally built on speed, pitching and defense, have changed their approach this season, becoming more patient and powerful at the plate. In other words, they have become more like the Red Sox, in the hope of finally outlasting them. The matchup between L.A.'s rejuvenated offense and Boston's stellar starting pitchers -- particularly Jon Lester and Josh Beckett -- will determine if the Angels have caught up to their October rivals or if nothing has really changed.

If not for the Red Sox, the Angels might be the team of the decade. Instead of one World Series trophy, they could have four. The Red Sox have knocked them out in the American League Division Series in each of the last two years and three of the last five. The Angels may claim that the Red Sox are just another opponent, but they loom much larger. This September it became clear that the Red Sox had snuck into the Angels' psyche when L.A. lost a game at Fenway Park on two very questionable calls and closer Brian Fuentes suggested that umpires had become too "timid" and "scared" to disappoint the sellout crowds in Boston. In truth, the Angels have been timid against the Red Sox in past playoff series as well, botching routine plays and making unthinkable base-running mistakes. To reach the ALCS, they will have to clear a huge mental hurdle and overcome a team that has become their most troublesome nemesis.

In June, David Ortiz was batting .186 with one home run. In July, he was addressing a report that he took steroids in 2003. He has admitted that this was his toughest season. But Ortiz is now in position to finish it in style. Dismissed as an aging and pharmaceutically enhanced slugger on the downside of his career, Ortiz acknowledged that he had nothing left to lose, so he played the second half of the season with the carefree approach of a Little Leaguer. He hit .284 in September and finished with 28 home runs. While he is not the threat he used to be, he is more than capable of taking over a short series. Ortiz is motivated, not only by the controversy he has weathered this season, but also by his noted failures in last year's playoffs, when he batted .186 with one home run. Ortiz is a famously streaky hitter, and he may be heating up at the right time.

Like Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero looked finished. He endured two extended stints on the disabled list this season, hit only four home runs as of Aug. 5, and gave the Angels little reason to consider picking up his $15 million option for next year. But Guerrero turned back the clock just as Ortiz did, batting .337 in August with nine homers. Guerrero is notorious for his postseason flops. In 75 career postseason at-bats he is batting .240 with just one homer. However, he did earn some playoff stripes last year, batting .467 against the Red Sox. The Angels have traditionally depended on Guerrero to be their primary run-producer and limped out of the playoffs when he has let them down. This year they have other hitters capable of driving in runs -- namely Kendry Morales, Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter -- so Guerrero should be able to relax and finally enjoy an October.

In past years the Angels have not matched up well with the Red Sox, mainly because Boston is so much more patient at the plate. But this season the Angels could not ask for a better matchup, at least in one respect: They ought to own the Red Sox on the basepaths. The Angels rank third in the major leagues in stolen bases and are traditionally the most aggressive baserunning team in the sport, with the possible exception of Tampa Bay. The Red Sox, on the other hand, have allowed the most stolen bases in the majors this season. Three times they have allowed seven or more stolen bases in a game. They will undoubtedly improve with Victor Martinez getting more time behind the plate than Jason Varitek, but the Angels have three players in the top 50 in steals -- Chone Figgins, Abreu and Hunter. They should, and will, look to run every chance they get.

Despite all the various keys, first-round series usually come down to which team has better starters at the top of its rotation, and the Red Sox have the edge here. But it's not as clear as it once was, since Jon Lester took a line drive off his right leg in late September and Josh Beckett has been suffering from recent back spasms. Both conditions appear relatively minor, but the Red Sox are understandably cautious, given that their bid to repeat as World Series champions last year was derailed partly because of ill-timed injuries. When Lester and Beckett are at full strength they form arguably the best lefty-righty combo in baseball, and they get even stingier in the postseason, where Beckett has a 2.90 ERA and Lester's is 2.25. They're both power pitchers, but they know how to take advantage of over-aggressive hitters, which is how they usually dominate the Angels.

THE PICK: Angels in five.

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