Sunday, October 11, 2009

(Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

By Zach Stoloff Columnist

October is vindication season in Los Angeles (of Anaheim).

With one swing of the bat, Vladimir Guerrero made all the Halo faithful forget his postseason struggles.

With one, simple, 1-2-3 inning, Brian Fuentes made all of those still pining for Frankie Rodriguez forget his shaky September.

With one base hit by Bobby Abreu, Jonathan Papelbon’s 27 inning postseason scoreless streak and impenetrable aura became a distant memory.

With one improbable comeback, the Angels showed why they ranked second in MLB in come-from-behind victories, and conjured memories of the magic of 2002.

With one series-sweeping series victory, the Angels dispelled the nation-wide notion that they’re incapable of beating the Red Sox when it really matters, and booked themselves a ticket to their third American League Championship Series this decade.

Sorry, ESPN, you won’t be getting that Sox/Yanks series we all know you really wanted. You’ll have to settle for a West Coast club. Albeit one who won more games than the ‘Sox each of the past two seasons.

While standard logic says you’d rather have your team celebrate in front of the home town fans, seeing the Angels dogpile on the Fenway mound while stunned-silent Chowderheads slowly trickled out in palpable disbelief—could there have been a prettier picture?

In many ways, this series was an exorcism of sorts. Not necessarily for the very real ghosts of Nick Adenhart and Donnie Moore, but for Angels fans and players who bore witness to the soul-crushing defeats of 2004, 2007, and 2008.

It’s safe to say that talk of hexes has been resoundingly put to rest.

Chone Figgins may have gone 0 for 13 entering his final at bat Sunday—recalling images of his spotty play in postseasons past—but ultimately he got on base when it mattered, scoring the tying run in the ninth.

Abreu had done his best work thus far in the series in the pitches he didn’t swing at, but his bat did all the talking it needed to with its ninth inning RBI double.

Guerrero, oft maligned by fans unable to stomach his free-swinging ways in the wake of declined production, thoroughly proved his value in the cleanup role Sunday, vindicating himself as well as Mike Scioscia, who has stuck with him in that spot all season.

However, no player was more clutch when it mattered than rising star Erick Aybar, who hit the go-ahead triple on Friday, then, with the Angels down to their final strike and no one on base Sunday, singled to extend the inning and start the Angels’ incredible rally.

LA’s supposedly shaky bullpen mostly got the job done, keeping the game close enough to give the offense a chance after Scott Kazmir’s worst start in an Angels uniform made matters look bleak.

And then, of course, two runs behind and down to their final strike against perhaps the game’s best closer, the ultimate vindication occurred.

There would be no smug fist-shaking from Papelbon Sunday afternoon.

After all the mentions how the Red Sox were in the Angels’ heads, that was a storyline which never had a chance to play out. Rather, it seems that these ‘head games’ were entirely in the heads of the sportswriters.

The Angels, right from the get-go, seemed completely unfazed by their rivals in the opposite dugout, even as the first two games went scoreless into the middle innings and tension rose.

No, hexes and head games were always just a mythical invention of us sportswriters to attract readers, and ultimately they probably have nothing to do with how these games play out on the field.

So would it be contradictory to start looking ahead to (likely) the Yankees, and the Angels’ impressive record against them over the last decade plus?

Well, if you’re going to claim that the Red Sox supposed mental advantage over the Angels was overblown, it’s probably not good practice to refer to the Angels’ psychological edge over the Yankees.

It was Mike Scioscia’s one-game-at-a-time approach which enabled LA to get the monkey off their back with Boston, and it’s going to be that same approach which prevents them from a letdown against New York, so there’s no need to cite head games.

However, for the rest of Sunday and until the ALCS begins on Friday, Angels fans can take much satisfaction in downing the ‘Sox. There is still much work to be done and eight more wins to be earned, but make no mistake, this was an enormously important moral victory for this team.

Oh, yes indeed… how sweep it is.
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