Heading into a three game series at Anaheim in late September, the Yankees were in the middle of another West Coast road trip, and the Boston Red Sox were casually in the midst of a nice winning streak. The Yankees lead in the AL East had shrunk to only five games, and the Yankees were heading into a Stadium which they had not fared very well over the last half decade.
Over the prior five seasons the Yankees were a combined 5-18 against the Angels in Anaheim, including an embarrassing three game sweep at Anaheim this season just before the All Star break. In that July series, the Yankee pitchers allowed 29 runs in the three games, and entering the middle innings, the Yankees had leads in all three contests.
In addition, the Yankees have played in two playoff series with the Mike Scioscia led Angels.
In both the 2002 and 2005 ALDS Series, both Yankee losses, the Bombers were 1-4 at Anaheim.
Then, the Yankees proceeded to drop the first game of that September series, and sat five games ahead of the Red Sox who had lost to lowly Kansas City. But the Yankees still had two more against the Angels and the Sox still were playing the last place Royals.
Why do the Yankees, the team with arguably the best track record in the last 15 years, have a problem with the Angels?
First, the Angels are good, with good players and a good, secure coaching staff. I say secure because the coaches have pretty much been the same since Mike Scioscia took over 10 years ago. No hotheaded firings over lost playoff series, no canings because your cleanup hitter decided to go into a funk during September and October. No pitching coach turnstile because of too many sliders left hanging over the middle of the plate.
The hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, first base coach Alfredo Griffin, and bench coach Ron Roenicke have all been with the team since Scioscia was named manager. The third base coach this season was the bench coach before switching with Roenicke. The only change on Scioscia's staff was at pitching coach when then Angel pitching coach Bud Black became manager of the San Diego Padres. New pitching coach Mike Butcher has been with the team since Black left.
The coaches know how to do things as a team. But while the coaching stability and team concept are so important during the regular season grind, it is up to the players to perform in the post season. And the Angels had better teams than the Yankees those years, playing better baseball when it mattered.
One great thing I heard during the Yankees telecasts from Anaheim in September is that the Angels are first in MLB in going from first to third on a single. That is immensely important in putting pressure on a defense. The cool thing, however, was that the Angels also want their minor leaguers to attempt more stolen bases to learn how to improve and do it correctly, and to attempt to go from first to third. They do not mind getting thrown out on either play because they want their farmhands to play Angel baseball.
I remember a town (Union, NJ) near where I grew up (Cranford, NJ) which had tremendous high school football and baseball teams. They played in the top division in the state, and won many Group and State titles in both sports. The revered high school coaches taught the "Union HS way" to the local Pop Warner and Little Leagues, teaching the kids what they would expect to do at the high school level. When the kids arrived in high school, they were well versed in the proper methods of play.
Anyway, the Yankees won to win the final two games of that September series, built up their AL East lead again. But many pundits said the Yankees got that proverbial monkey (the Angels rally monkey perhaps?) off their back.
But the Angels never were "in the Yankee heads." It is tough to win against a good team when you are on a cross country trip. Even the Red Sox were only 7-12 at Anaheim, but their 3-0 record in two playoff series during that span outweighs their less than .500 regular season record.
It is tougher to win on the West coast during the regular season because teams are usually in the midst of seven to 10 game trips away from home, and it is a grind day after day. Combine that with the talent the Angels have had, and the pressure their style of play put on the opposition, and it makes sense that the Yankees did not play well there. It wasn't mental but physical.
The Angels had better teams and played better when it counted most.
The Angels have been a good team the last eight years or so, winning five division titles and one World Series title in 2002. It is based upon stability of the coaching staff, as many players have come and gone through their system. Only No. 1 starter John Lackey has been there since 2002. This team is not afraid to play their youngsters, evidenced by starting the rookie Lackey in Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.
The Angels have been successful over the last eight years or so, and they have had the team concept better than anyone. Their successful play was the result of playing better baseball at the right times.
It was physical, not mental, and they were never in the Yankee heads.