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Yanks rise above pressure, fell sloppy Angels in Game 1 of ALCS

The ball soared high into the misty air, reached its apex and, with two outs in the bottom of the first inning on Friday night, began to fall back to the earth where the infield at Yankee Stadium ends and leftfield begins. Angels third baseman Chone Figgins was certain that shortstop Erick Aybar would catch this routine pop-up off the bat of Hideki Matsui. The ball kept falling. Aybar was certain that Figgins would catch it. The ball kept falling. Figgins looked at Aybar. Aybar looked at Figgins. The ball kept falling. A moment after a look of panic registered on each of their faces, the ball was on the ground and Johnny Damon crossed home plate for the Yankees' second run of the inning, which would prove to be all the runs they would require to win this first game of the ALCS by the ultimate score of 4-1.

The Minnesota Twins last week doomed themselves in the Yankees' ALDS sweep by making uncharacteristic blunders, mostly on the basepaths; but in retrospect, it seems doubtful they'd have advanced even had they played gaffe-free baseball, so great was the Yankees' talent advantage. The Angels, however, are supposed to be different: Able to score almost as prolifically as the Yankees, able to pitch nearly as well as them, not nearly as prone to forcing themselves into making careless mistakes in their desperation to eke out any sort of advantage against the game's premier club. They were have supposed to have proven that throughout the Mike Scioscia era, as not only the sole AL team to have a winning record against the Yankees since the turn of the decade, when Scioscia was hired, but as a team that easily had a winning record over that period, at 56-44.

That confident and sure-handed club was not the one that took the field Friday night in Yankee Stadium. It actually took two Angels fielding mistakes in the first to allow Damon to score what ended up being the game-winner -- the first came when Juan Rivera uncorked a truly miserable throw back to the infield after Damon had singled down the leftfield line, allowing Damon to advance into scoring position. Five innings later, two more Angels' mistakes combined to allow the Yankees to score their fourth and final run. After starter John Lackey walked Melky Cabrera with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, Lackey threw over to first on a 1-1 count with Derek Jeter at the plate. The throw was not particularly errant, but it evaded the glove of first baseman Kendry Morales, and Cabrera scrambled to second. On the very next pitch, Jeter drove an 81 mile-an-hour slider up the middle, toward centerfielder Torii Hunter, the Angels' eight-time Gold Glove winner. The strong-armed Hunter might have had a real chance at gunning down Cabrera at home, had he not allowed the ball to skip over his glove and behind him into center, committing what was officially L.A.'s third error of the night.

"It was sloppy, man," an open-shirted Hunter said in front of his locker after the game, of his club's performance. "Miscommunication on one [the pop-up], an error on my part. It's out of character for us. We usually play the game the right way."

Why, Hunter was asked, did the Angels' uncharacteristic breakdown happen, on this stage, against these Yankees? "I have no idea at all," he said. "The cold has nothing to do with it. Maybe it was loud. Fig was saying, 'Aybar, Aybar, you got it,' and Aybar heard something else. For me, it was just a bad hop. That's baseball."

During this postseason, that most often seems to have been "baseball" for whichever team is playing against the Yankees. The Yankees themselves, as they also failed to do in any of any of their three wins against the Twins, did not themselves play a especially complete game, particularly on offense. They had 10 hits, yes, but eight were singles (the other two were doubles), and they left 11 men on base -- seven in scoring position with two outs. But these Yankees haven't needed to maximize every situation, thanks to a combination of the dominant starting pitching they've received -- after CC Sabathia's eight-inning, four-hit, seven-strikeout, one-run gem tonight, Yankees starters now boast an ERA of 1.00 in these playoffs, with 28 strikeouts in 27 innings -- and to the fact their opponents can't seem to help themselves but either give away free runs, or fail to score runs themselves in situations in which they should.

"We haven't seen our guys crack the door open for a team like we did tonight in a long time," said Scioscia after the game. "The Yankees are going to take advantage of that, and they did."

"We can't count on the Angels making three errors every game," said Sabathia. "That's a really good team, fundamentally, defensively, and it was just one of those days tonight."

The Angels cannot afford to have "one of those days" Saturday night, as they can't expect their Game 2 starter to perform even as well as did Lackey, who went 5.2 innings and allowed four runs -- only two of which, of course, were earned. Scioscia will put the ball in the hands of Joe Saunders, even though Saunders has a 6.28 in five career outings against New York, and Scioscia's other lefthanded starter, Scott Kazmir, has historically performed much better against the Bombers: In 15 career games he's 6-5 with a 2.67 ERA and has held them to a .221 batting average against.

"Joe Saunders was the guy that we felt was ready," Scioscia explained, "and I thought his stuff would match up better than anywhere else ... We feel his stuff is going to play really well in this ballpark, and hopefully we'll see that."

If Saunders' stuff plays as it usually has against the Yankees, though, and if their power bats finally come alive, then it won't matter if the Angels play their typically fearless and error-free brand of baseball. They'll still be flying back to Anaheim in a 2-0 hole, one out of which they likely won't be able to climb.

Follow Ben Reiter on Twitter @ SI_BenReiter

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