Wednesday, February 10, 2010

By Geoff Bilau - Senior Editor

It was a moment almost exactly 23 years in the making and the principle players couldn't have been dreamed up any better:

Angels and Red Sox. Fenway Park and  October. Vladimir Guerrero and Jonathan Papelbon.

So much history between the two teams, almost all of it favoring Boston. Recently it was the ALDS sweeps in 2004 and 2007 and the gut-wrenching walk-off hits in those series and again in 2008. All of those, of course, were merely aftershocks to the debacle that was the 1986 ALCS, specifically Game 5 on Oct. 12, 1986.

Anybody with more than a passing interest in Angels baseball understands that what happened in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the 2009 ALDS wasn't just a clutch hit off a dominant closer. It was the hit many fans had wanted to see for more than two decades — dare I say it was the hit they needed to see.

Though the Angels had already jumped out to a commanding 2-0 series lead on the strength of dominant pitching performances by John Lackey and Jered Weaver in Games 1 and 2 in Anaheim, no Angels fan took a series victory for granted. How could they after all that had happened in the past?

And when the Red Sox, back home in their comfy bandbox, roughed up Scott Kazmir and took a 5-2 lead into the eight inning of Game 3, Angels fans were already fast forwarding to Game 5 and Josh Beckett.

Red Sox reliever Billy Wagner, however, allowed the Angels to mount a threat in the eighth, forcing Boston manager Terry Francona to summon Papelbon for a four-out save. In 26 postseason innings, the Red Sox closer had not allowed a single run. But with runners on second and third, Juan Rivera drove Papelbon's first pitch to right field, drawing the Angels to within one, 5-4.

All hope seemed to die moments later, however, when pinch runner Reggie Willits was picked off first base to end the inning and the Red Sox added an insurance run in the bottom half of the inning.

Papelbon made quick work of Maicer Izturis and pinch hitter Gary Matthews Jr. to start the ninth and Game 4 seemed assured. But Erick Aybar, 2008 ALDS goat, lined an 0-2 Papelbon offering into center field to keep the Angels alive. Chone Figgins, in the midst of a horrible series (0-12) worked a seven-pitch walk.

When Bobby Abreu slapped a 1-2 pitch over left fielder Jason Bay's head, the Fenway crowd grew so quiet the sound of the ball slamming into the Green Monster echoed throughout the stadium. Aybar scored, the Angels trailed, 6-5, and Game 1 hero Torii Hunter was due up.

Francona elected to walk Hunter and load the bases for Guerrero. The face of the Angels franchise for much of the most successful period in team history was no longer the same "Super Vlad," injuries and age sapping much of his power and presence. A likely free agent at season's end, there was every indication this might be Guerrero's last hurrah with the Angels.

To nobody's surprise, Guerrero swung at Papelbon's first pitch, a knee-high 95 mph fastball, and served into into center field, where it dropped in front of a fast-charging Jacoby Ellsbury. Figgins and Abreu scored, giving the Angels a 7-6 lead, and Guerrero stood safe at first base with the biggest hit of his postseason career.

Papelbon walked off the Fenway Park mound to a chorus of boos.

A few minutes later, Brian Fuentes retired Boston in order in the bottom of the ninth and the Angels completed an unbelievable series sweep of the Red Sox.

Though they would succumb to the eventual World Champion Yankees, 4-2, in the ALCS (though not before providing two more memorable victories), there was undoubtedly a sense that the Angels had indeed completed some "unfinished business," thanks in huge part to the ninth inning heroics the man who may one day become the first player enshrined in the Hall of Fame as an Angel.
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