By Jock Thompson - Angelswin.com Columnist
That swirling sound you’re hearing just might be the Angels’ 2008 playoff hopes circling the proverbial drain. And once again, they’re hearing the criticism, from fans and pundits alike.
When recent Angel post-season failures are examined by talking heads and other mediots, they are often categorized under “can’t win in the playoffs”, thanks to nine consecutive playoff losses dating back to 2005. Or “the Red Sox have their playoff number”, thanks to 11 straight losses to Boston, three of which date back to 1986. That the most recent three Angel post-season failures from 2004-2007 were all against eventual World Series winners who dominated everyone they played is ignored. In fact, the best team often wins, even in a short-series – and this might well be happening again.
In the most exciting – and for Angel fans, agonizing - 2008 postseason game to date, the Angels again fell short against MLB’s franchise-of-the-decade Friday night. You may be tired of the obnoxiousness of Red Sox Nation (I know I am) and the odiousness with which the lesser Red Sox beat writers feed its worst elements (yes, I’m looking at you, Dan Shaughnessy). But classlessness aside, there’s no denying this basic truth about the team they support.
In another “bloody sock” franchise moment, JD Drew came back from the dead – or at least a bad back - to hit a key first inning double, before delivering his ninth inning crusher off of Frankie Rodriguez. The Ghost of Manny Ramirez is alive and well in Jason Bay, the player for whom the Angels’ previous tormentor was traded and who hit another big HR Friday night. John Lester is one of the AL’s best – and underrated - young pitchers. And Jonathon Papelbon (two saves) has been Jonathon Papelbon; one doesn’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to be lights-out at closing time.
Unlike other playoff teams that currently find themselves in a 2-0 hole, the Angels didn’t fold early after Bay’s first inning jack put them four runs down. The offense was relentless if inefficient in its one-run-at-a-time pursuit, finally catching the Red Sox in the eighth inning before Drew’s heroics in the ninth. But the glaring weaknesses and puzzling inconsistencies that keep them from performing consistently at Boston’s level stopped them from getting over the hump again.
The Angels have picked up 20 hits over two games, but their inability to hit in the clutch (4-for-21 with runners in scoring position over the first two games) has left 21 base runners stranded. And 19 of the Angels’ 20 hits have been singles, a disturbing sign from a team that outslugged the Red Sox over the last three months of 2008, after the additions of Juan Rivera and Mark Teixeira to the lineup. This power outage has been the key factor in their inability to score more than a run per inning during the post-season.
But it’s their traditional lack of plate discipline, unwillingness to consistently work counts and, seemingly, an absence of game situation awareness that has once again been the Angels’ biggest hurdle. In particular, their unwillingness to take the first pitch at critical moments – see Vlad’s AB in the first inning of Game One, Rivera’s AB in the first inning of Game Two, or almost any of Howie Kendrick’s ABs – has again short-circuited promising innings. As their five free passes suggests, Friday was better than Wednesday, but key ABs were given away on both nights.
Clearly some of the younger Angels don’t appear to be ready for primetime. Kendrick may have been a minor league batting champ, but until he improves his pitch recognition he’s a hole in the lineup, particularly in the postseason against the best pitching the AL has to offer. Ditto Eric Aybar. Combine all of this with notable performance failures at key times – e.g. - Ervin Santana’s uncharacteristic two-out-none-on first inning meltdown, Rodriguez saving his worst changeup of the year for Drew in the ninth – and we are where we are.
The 2008 Angel club is the best version since 2002, and a fine season has been affirmed by 100 regular season wins. Even down 2-0 heading into Fenway, I’d be shocked if this team rolled over now. And while there are long odds against the series coming back to Anaheim, it wouldn’t completely surprise me, because anything can happen in a five-game series and this year’s Angels are more than capable. But as occurred in 2004, 2005 and 2007, the Angels may now well be up against the eventual World Series Champion. And if so, as improved as they are, what they’re bringing to the table right now still isn’t quite good enough.