Monday, March 17, 2008

By Geoff Bilau, Senior Editor

It would come down to this: the best two out of three takes the division.

The Angels, 2002 World Champions and 2003 underachievers, along with their new owner and an unprecedented number of fans, would converge on Oakland in a tie with the A’s atop the division and three games to play. No tie-breakers, no one-game playoffs; just the simple math. Win twice or go home.

Despite their World Series title two seasons earlier, the Angels still had some unfinished business, having not won an American League West championship in 18 years. (The 2002 team entered the postseason as a wild card.) Arte Moreno, who acquired the team 17 months earlier, promised a winner, spent $145 million buying players to help build one and appeared on the verge of delivering the goods.

But the games were going to be played in Oakland and the Angels would have to go through the A’s “Big Three” starting pitchers — Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson — to get there.

The series’ Friday night opener turned out to be a laugher, with the Angels roughing up Mulder with four in the second and little Alfredo Amezaga delivering the knockout punch to Joe Blanton with a grand slam in the sixth. The Angels rode seven shutout innings from Bartolo Colon to an eventual 10-0 victory, and were now in the driver’s seat needing only to win one of the following two games.

Hours before the first pitch of Saturday’s matinee, Moreno proudly sifted about the lower sections of McAfee Coliseum, wearing a big smile and happily chatting up any Angels fan who approached him — and there were a lot of them. An Angels victory would represent a coronation of sorts for the man who talked a big game and seemed poised to back up his lofty aspirations with results.

With the stadium filled with more red than the blood typically spilled at a Raiders game, Zito and Kelvim Escobar locked horns in a tightly contested duel. Escobar would be the first to blink, giving up one-out singles to Mark Kotsay and Eric Byrnes ahead of Eric Chavez’s double to score both of them and give Oakland a 2-0 lead.

Zito, meanwhile, was dealing. Through five innings, the Angels had managed only a hit and walk off the 2002 Cy Young Award winner. In the sixth, however, the Angels’ would-be MVP evened the score. With two outs and Chone Figgins at first, Vlad Guerrero took the first pitch from Zito and crushed it over the tall fence in center field, bringing a subdued Angels fan contingent back to life.

But the A’s answered quickly in the bottom half of the inning. Catcher Damian Miller doubled home Jermaine Dye with the go-ahead run, sending Escobar to the showers. Brendan Donnelly struck out Bobby Crosby for the second out, but frequent thorn in the Angels’ side, Marco Scutaro, singled to score Miller and give the A’s a 4-2 lead. And when Zito retired the Angels in order in the top of the seventh, it looked like the series would become a winner-takes-all affair on Sunday.

Donnelly did his part, getting the A’s 1-2-3 in the seventh. Zito, who’d allowed just three hits in seven innings, however, told manager Ken Macha his legs felt tight and suggested he go to the bullpen. The Angels, apparently sensing a reprieve, wasted no time in making that decision a bad one.

With Jim Mecir now pitching, Bengie Molina led off with a groundball single to left and Josh Paul pinch ran. Curtis Pride, pinch hitting for Amezaga, struck out looking, but Figgins singled to center, moving Paul to second. Macha summoned lefty Ricardo Rincon to face Darin Erstad.

Rincon would warm up for several minutes in order to deliver one actual pitch — a fat one right in Erstad’s wheelhouse that he drove deep into right field about a foot from the top of the wall for a double to drive in Paul and Figgins and again tie the score. Rincon would issue an intentional walk to Guerrero before being relieved by A’s closer Octavio Dotel.

"I asked (pitching coach) Curt (Young) if he was confident in the bullpen right now and he said yes," Zito said. "In retrospect, it was the wrong call. But my legs were tightening up for the last couple of innings. I have to trust myself. I'm going to pitch as long as I can."

After Troy Glaus flew out to right for the second out, Garret Anderson rolled Dotel’s 1-1 offering through the infield, just out of the reach of a diving Scutaro, and Erstad slid across home plate ahead of the throw from Dye to give the Angels their first lead of the game, 5-4. Erstad was greeted by the entire Angels roster outside the dugout as Angels fans reached a fever pitch.

"I knew our guys weren't going to melt," manager Mike Scioscia. "We have a lot of very, very talented players."

Francisco Rodriguez pitched a scoreless eighth and Troy Percival came on in the ninth to close it, inducing three straight fly balls to Jeff DaVanon in left field, the last giving the Angels their first division title since 1986.

"What we did to be at this point, nobody expected it," Figgins said. "It's motivation. We were down four or five games, but we still had to play in our division. When you still have to play in your division and it's coming down to the home stretch, you get a little more energy."

Angels fans who made the trip north lingered long after the game, congregating behind the visitor’s dugout and celebrating while the players, coaches and Moreno showered each other in champagne in the clubhouse. The Angels were once again the kings of the West and Moreno was bestowed a crown of beer and champagne for helping them get there.
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