Down by one run in the eighth inning Wednesday night, with Vladimir Guerrero on first base for the Angels, Torii Hunter hit a pop fly into shallow right field. Guerrero ran a little more than halfway to second base, just as he is taught, and froze. When Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis failed to catch the ball, Guerrero cruised into second. Then, for some inexplicable reason that the Angels could spend all winter trying to figure out, he bolted for third. Youkilis picked up the ball, threw to third, and nailed Guerrero by at least 15 feet.
It was a terrible decision. And in a best-of-five series, one bad decision can be the difference between moving on and heading home. The Angels lost to the Red Sox on Wednesday, 4-1, due in large part to Guerrero's gaffe. Despite having the best record in the major leagues this season and the most complete team in baseball, the Angels must win Game 2 on Friday or they will go back to Fenway Park down 0-2 in the American League Division Series, a sure death sentence.
Guerrero said he thought Hunter's fly went further than it did, clearly a gross miscalculation. The Angels are a dervish of a team, loaded with free swingers and breakneck baserunners. From the minor leagues on up, coaches in the organization preach the importance of taking the extra base. If a runner gets thrown out once in a while, it's OK, as long as he was hustling. But in the playoffs, where each miscue is magnified, getting thrown out at third base is not OK.
Since 2002, when the Angels won the World Series, they have racked up four AL West titles. But they have won only one playoff series in that span and they have never won Game 1 of a division series. The Red Sox swept the Angels in the first round in 2004 en route to a World Series championship and did the same in 2007. This time was supposed to be different. The Red Sox, like the Angels a year ago, hobbled into the postseason -- Josh Beckett a strained oblique, Mike Lowell an injured hip, J.D. Drew a bad back. Besides, the Angels had taken the last eight meetings between the two teams.
"We're facing the same situation they were last year," David Ortiz said.
But there is something fundamentally different between the Red Sox and the Angels. Call it big-game moxie. Although Jason Bay only joined the Red Sox in July, he has obviously inherited their sense of occasion. Before Wednesday's game, Red Sox players turned to the scoreboard at Angel Stadium to watch Manny Ramirez hit a solo home run for the Dodgers. Ramirez's replacement did even better. Trailing 1-0 in the sixth, Bay slammed a high fastball from John Lackey over the left-field fence for a go-ahead two-run homer. Bay later added a double, not a bad playoff debut for someone who has spent the past five years toiling in Pittsburgh. "I couldn't have picked a better first game," Bay said. "We always feel like we're going to win, like we're going to win every day," Youkilis said. "Guys will come and go. But that's never changed. You take one guy out of the lineup and it's still a good team. We were a good team with Manny. We're a good team without Manny."
Two years ago, Jon Lester had cancer. In the past year, he has won the deciding game in the World Series, pitched a no-hitter and started the Red Sox playoff opener Wednesday night. Lester is not as effective on the road as he is at home, and he would not have been on the mound Wednesday night if Beckett was healthy, but he looked every bit the ace.
Red Sox manager Terry Francona says Lester's velocity has improved as this season has worn on, a tribute to his training regimen, but also a sign that he is getting further and further from the disease. Lester worked seven innings Wednesday and gave up just one unearned run, after shortstop Jed Lowrie booted a routine grounder. "Jon's got a special place in all of our hearts," Francona said. "Not just because of what he went through, but how he went through it -- the grace and dignity."
The Angels, who scored all of four runs in being swept by the Red Sox last October, supposedly muscled up by signing Hunter in the offseason and trading for Mark Teixeira in July. But they still cannot buy a clutch hit. They left the bases loaded in the first inning, two runners on in the third, and two more in the fifth. Lester was great, but the Angels made him look even better, chasing cutters and curves outside the strike zone. A couple of Angels' hitters swung so hard they lost their balance.
For everything the Angels accomplished over the past six months, they now find themselves with something to prove. Sure, they can win 100 games, but they need to show that they can settle down and win a big one.