Angels running away from Red Sox

Publish date:

They teach it in Salt Lake City, Little Rock, Cedar Rapids and 40 miles down the road in Rancho Cucamonga, a breakneck brand of baseball known as the Angel Way. It is highly entertaining -- stolen bases, hit-and-runs, speed merchants rushing from first to third in a blur -- but come playoff time it has been highly suspect.

On Friday night, the Angels proved that their way works in October as well as it does in April. They ran the Red Sox out of Southern California and now have a chance to run their longtime nemesis right out of the playoffs. The Angels have taken the first two games of the American League Division Series, thanks to the philosophy they impart throughout their minor-league system, which they never abandoned even in the face of staggering post-season failure.

The Angels scored Friday after Bobby Abreu went from first to third base on a hit-and-run single. They scored after Howie Kendrick stole second. They scored after Macer Izturis did the same. And they scored twice as Erick Aybar dashed around the bases on a two-run triple that broke open the game in the seventh inning and gave the Angels a 4-1 victory. In Los Angeles, with the Dodgers and Angels both up 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs, an I-5 Series is no longer looking so far fetched.

This was the kind of game, taut and low-scoring, that the Angels usually lose to the Red Sox. Josh Beckett, one of the best post-season pitchers of the past decade, imposes his will and whoever is facing him falters. The fact that Beckett flinched first, and Jered Weaver outlasted him, shows that the Angels may have finally taken command of this match-up. One night after John Lackey held the Red Sox to four hits, Weaver limited them to just two. In two games at Angel Stadium, Boston managed only one run. Manager Terry Francona, who complained of food poisoning Thursday, presumably suffered from another bout of indigestion Friday.

"We've had a tough time these last two games swinging the bat," Francona said. "That's an understatement."

The Red Sox counted on Beckett to save them and perhaps they counted on him too long. In the seventh inning, they had relief pitcher Billy Wagner warming up in the bullpen, but they let Beckett face Izturis, who knocked in Kendrick with a go-ahead single. Then they let Beckett face Mike Napoli, whom he plunked. They even left him in for Aybar, who put an end to the suspense with his shot over Jacoby Ellsbury in centerfield.

"We're like that," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "We'll go 0, 0, 0, 0 and then put up a four-spot."

The rally was vintage Angels, but it started in the most unusual way, with a five-pitch walk to Vladimir Guerrero in which he did not take the bat off his shoulder and even ducked down to watch a called strike. The patience shown by Guerrero, a renowned free-swinger, demonstrated one critical way in which the Angels have changed this year: they are as aggressive as ever, but now they are mixing in a dash of plate discipline, a combination that makes them hard to beat. As Guerrero put it through an interpreter, "Things cannot stay the same forever."

Through two games, the Red Sox have received quality starts from Beckett and Jon Lester, as well as glittering plays in the field from Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Alex Gonzalez, and several from Mike Lowell. But pitching and defense, contrary to the axioms, cannot win championships on their own. The Red Sox are stuck in the kind of hitting slump that usually snares the Angels at this time of year. No one in the Red Sox lineup has more than one hit in the series except for Ellsbury. David Ortiz and Lowell have none.

The Angels, meanwhile, are breaking out of a post-season rut that has lasted about four years. They are finally taking advantage of one mismatch they have always enjoyed against the Red Sox: their speed. This season, the Angels had the third-most stolen bases in the major leagues while the Red Sox finished dead last in throwing out runners. The disparity became apparent in the seventh, when Kendrick and Izturis set up runs with steals.

The Red Sox have to hope that the start time for Game 3 on Sunday at Fenway Park -- 12 p.m. EST, 9 a.m. to the Angels body clocks -- will render their visitors a little groggy. Up until now, there has been no other way to slow them down.