ANAHEIM -- Torii Hunter has one of the most gregarious personalities in baseball, an unstoppable grin that stretches from the start of spring training through the end of September, but even Hunter's upbeat nature has its limits. When he came to the plate in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday night, he looked uncharacteristically angry, sick and tired of hearing that the Angels never get past the Red Sox in the playoffs and never will.
With one violent hack, Hunter put to rest any notion that the Angels are doomed just because they drew the Red Sox, or that their past playoff failures have any bearing on this year's series. As Hunter's three-run homer kicked off the rock formation behind centerfield at Angel Stadium, you could read his lips: "That's what I'm talking about, baby!" Hunter circled the bases so fast that he almost lapped Bobby Abreu. When he reached the dugout, he took off his helmet and spiked it off the floor with both hands, nearly knocking over third baseman Chone Figgins.
The Angels, who have been bounced from the playoffs by the Red Sox in three of the past five seasons, losing nine of 10 games in the process, were releasing years of frustration. Finally able to exhale, they cruised to a 5-0 victory behind ace John Lackey, their first win at Angel Stadium in the playoffs in seven tries.
The last time the Angels saw the Red Sox, in September at Fenway Park, Hunter castigated his teammates for showing a lack of fortitude against the American League elite. The Angels responded exactly how he had hoped. If anything, he was concerned about them being too amped Thursday and cautioned: "Don't drink any coffee." Hunter is well versed in the danger of caffeine. Last year, he downed two cups of java before Game 2 of the Division Series against the Red Sox, and felt so much adrenaline coursing through him that he injured his knee while arguing with an umpire. On Thursday, he limited himself to one cup.
"I get so much adrenaline out there I get a headache," Hunter said. "I get dizzy. I get woozy ... .I wish you could be in my body and feel my adrenaline. It's nice."
Hunter spent Tuesday watching Minnesota beat Detroit in an epic one-game playoff at the Metrodome and sounded a tad homesick for his former team, eager to bring the same kind of drama to Southern Caliifornia. Ever since Hunter came to Anaheim from Minnesota before last season, he has been the club's vocal leader, and he urged the Angels to forget their struggles with the Red Sox and show no fear. "Talk some trash," he said, "and have some fun."
Through the first four innings Thursday, the Angels appeared as timid as ever, mustering just one hit against Red Sox starter Jon Lester. But they put two runners on for Hunter in the fifth and Lester threw him a fastball, down and over middle of the plate. Hunter was pumping his fists before he left the batters box. The Angels, who since 2004 had played 98 post-season innings against the Red Sox and led for only seven of them, finally struck first.
The Red Sox proved five years ago that there are no curses in baseball, but if the Angels were dealing with any psychological demons left over from previous playoff series, Hunter and Lackey cast them aside. Lackey first emerged back in 2002, when he was 24 years old and won Game 7 of the World Series against the Giants. But since then, Lackey had not won a single playoff game, falling in five straight starts. There were times he got no run support. There were times his defense let him down. But on Thursday, he took complete control, working seven and one-third sparkling innings and scattering four measly hits.
For Lackey, who is set to become a free agent after the season, this was a defining performance, one that solidifies his reputation as a bona fide ace and should help him make a lot of money in a couple of months. For the Angels, it means much more. It means they can defend their home field, they can win in the playoffs and, yes, they can beat the Red Sox.