BOSTON -- Those closest to Vladimir Guerrero call him Mula, a nickname that dates back to his childhood tending mules on the family farm in the Dominican Republic, but might as well refer to his legendary stubbornness. Legions of hitting coaches have tried to make him more selective at the plate and he has refused. Hordes of reporters have pestered him for interviews and he has declined. He might be baseball's most mysterious superstar, with the uncanny ability to hit pitches up at his eyes and down at his shoe-tops, but no inclination to explain how or why he does it.
So now, with age and injuries threatening to steal his place in the game, with his contract about to expire and the Angels showing no desire to extend it, Guerrero is stubbornly hanging on to whatever he has left, unwilling to slip back to that Dominican farm. On a redemptive Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park, with the bases loaded and two outs in the ninth inning, against a pitcher who had never allowed a post-season run, Guerrero delivered what might be the most memorable hit of what should be a Hall of Fame career.
It was just a single, and for a man who has 407 home runs and swings for the fences even on sliders in the dirt, singles have never been the object. But given how Guerrero's legacy has been marred by postseason failure, both individual and collective, it was the most satisfying single he could imagine. His line drive to centerfield off Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon drove in the tying and go-ahead runs, giving the Angels a momentous 7-6 victory and a three-game sweep in the American League Division Series over the team that used to own them.
After the game, when Guerrero was asked what pitch he hit, he gave an answer that summed up his 14 years in the major leagues: "I don't know," he said. "I just swung." Reluctant as ever to accept attention, Guerrero dedicated his heroics to former Angels' pitcher Nick Adenhart, who died in a car crash in April. Guerrero wore a T-shirt emblazoned with Adenhart's likeness, and as the Angels dog-piled on the field at Fenway, pitcher Jered Weaver grabbed Adenhart's jersey from a hanger in the dugout and shook it.
Usually, when teams celebrate after the Division Series, it seems excessive. But in this case, it was meaningful, and not just because of Adenhart. Three times in the past five years, and each of the past two, the Angels lost to the Red Sox in the playoffs. The last time they were at Fenway Park in the postseason, Erick Aybar missed a suicide squeeze and Torii Hunter was punching holes in the clubhouse walls. On Sunday morning, when Angels owner Arte Moreno rode to Fenway with his wife, he told her: "If we bang on the door long enough, eventually they let you in." By Sunday afternoon, they were into the ALCS, Aybar break-dancing and Hunter mugging for cameras.
The Angels might not have thought so much about the past if the Red Sox had not constantly rubbed it in their faces. On Sunday, they trotted out Dave Henderson to throw the first pitch, significant since Henderson hit the home run for the Sox back in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS, when they trailed 3-1 and were down to their last strike. Henderson's homer sparked a comeback, and in Anaheim, "one strike away" became a mantra.
Twenty-three years later, one strike away finally means something else. The Angels were down to their last strike three times in the ninth, but Aybar guided a single to center, Chone Figgins coaxed a walk and Bobby Abreu doubled off the Green Monster. The Red Sox then intentionally walked Hunter -- who had hit a home run off Papelbon earlier in the season -- to get to Guerrero. Even Moreno, the owner, second-guessed the move. "How do you walk him to get to Vlad?" Moreno said. "There are a lot of hits in that bat."
The Angels had touched Papelbon the inning before, when Juan Rivera went after a first-pitch fastball and banged it into right center to score two runs. Guerrero adopted the same strategy, attacking a first-pitch fastball and piercing Papelbon's aura of invincibility. Guerrero, who only had one RBI in his last 19 postseason games, finally made his October moment. On the bench, the Angels went wild, not only because they took the lead, but because of the guy who gave it to them.
"Everybody's rooting for Vlad," said hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. "This might be his last year in an Angel uniform, and he's done so much for the organization, we want something special to happen to him."
Even the postgame celebration seemed tailored to Guerrero, teammates making his case for Cooperstown and downing Dominican beer. "He's a Hall of Famer in my book," Hunter said. Of course, that does not mean Guerrero will be back with the Angels next season or that teams will be lining up to sign him. But it does mean he has another chance, in the ALCS, to show he's not finished.