It took one hit to validate everything that we knew nights ago. It took one pitch to cripple something that was born years ago.
Vladimir Guerrero dumped a first-pitch fastball from Jonathan Papelbon into centerfield with two outs in the top of the ninth inning, knocking in two runs to give the Angels a 7-6 lead, and knocking out the Boston Red Sox for good.
All of the mystique, the aura, the mental edge, gone. The hex that the Red Sox supposedly held over the Angels after making them their personal October stepping stone in recent years? That went up in smoke, too.
It wasn’t so much that the Angels won this series that was surprising. The Angels are a resilient club that won 97 games in the regular season, endured more than any other team when you combine their injuries with the jolting death of Nick Adenhart, and build their identity around selflessness and belief. They had every reason to be here, and had every reason to move onto the ALCS.
It was the way the Angels beat the Red Sox that was surprising. They beat Boston at their own game. They were triumphant in a fashion that the Red Sox have nearly trademarked.
Great pitching, power, clutch hitting, and a nagging persistence that never dies. Those traits are accustomed to being donned in red come playoff time, but it just happened to be the wrong red this time around.
The shocker wasn’t Dustin Pedroia’s feeble pop-up falling softly into the glove of Erick Aybar to record the game’s final out. The shocker was a bullpen that crinkled, and balled up easier than tin foil. The shocker was Papelbon looking like a long, tiring season got the best of him at a time of year when he has never let anything get the best of him.
Coming into Sunday’s game, Papelbon hadn’t allowed a single run in 27 career postseason innings. When it was all over, the invincibility had showered, dressed, and left for winter as Papelbon allowed a run for every out he recorded.
It’s not as if the Red Sox took the beating and liked it, though. They had jumped out to a 5-2 lead after seven innings behind a solid effort from starter Clay Buchholz, and two wonderful innings of damage control and clean up from Daniel Bard.
Heck, Boston was leading 6-4 after Papelbon recorded two outs in the ninth. Things were looking up. Things were looking toward tomorrow. Those ordeals have always been done deals with Papelbon.
Call it the law of averages, or simply a desire to win that boiled like molten lava, but the Angels had finally had enough. On this day, the only thing that mattered was that Aybar, Chone Figgins, Bobby Abreu, and Guerrero had something to say about it.
The Red Sox were one strike away from suiting up again on Monday, but Aybar singled on a two-strike pitch to start the rally. Figgins worked the count to full before walking. Abreu fought off fastball after fastball before getting one he liked out over the plate, and spraying it off the Green Monster in left, to drive in Aybar to make it a 6-5 game.
After intentionally walking Torii Hunter to load the bases, it was Guerrero’s time. He didn’t let the hearts of New England rapidly beat for long, taking the first pitch to end the drama and finalize the misery.
“You’re not going to get to [Papelbon] too often, but we did this afternoon,” said Angels' manager Mike Scioscia. “And I felt great for Vlad, hopefully that’s a momentum-builder for him.”
It’s certainly a momentum-builder for the Angels. But that’s how this whole series felt, merely a statement from the Angels that they aren’t the same club that is consumed by errors and late-inning blunders when the bright lights go on. This is a different club that is taking a different approach to pursuing the same goal, and Torii Hunter will be damned if he doesn’t see that through.
“I told you guys earlier: It’s going to be a different scene,” said Hunter, marinating in a celebratory bath of champagne and beer.
It took the Angels three games to take the series from the Red Sox, but it only took them one game to begin pecking at the will of their former kryptonite club.
In Game One, Hunter walloped a Jon Lester fastball into the rock pile beyond centerfield in Anaheim for a three-run homer, an emphatic drive that Hunter celebrated by immediately pumping his fist and nearly sprinting around the bases. He slammed his helmet into the dugout floor amidst a wave of adrenaline and aggression, signifying that this October has nothing to do with the last one.
That was a page taken out of the Boston playbook. It’s always been the Angels who struggle to get a crucial extra-base hit, while David Ortiz, Kevin Youkilis, Jason Bay, et al, launch pitches into the night, and laugh as they start the merry-go-round.
In Game Two, it was Aybar tripling off Josh Beckett in the seventh inning to provide the go-ahead runs that would lead to a 4-1 victory.
In Game Three, it was a Kendry Morales home run that broke the seal against Buchholz in the fourth inning. Even more so, it was the five two-out RBI recorded off of Papelbon by Juan Rivera, Abreu, and Guerrero (two of those runs were charged to Billy Wagner as they were on base when Papelbon came in with two outs in the eighth).
Even if the offense remains relatively silent, we are used to the Red Sox riding their pitching staff to victories. But that didn’t happen, either. John Lackey tossed seven-and-one-third scoreless innings in Game One to beat Boston in the playoffs for the first time in his career.
Then Jered Weaver showed up the next night and made us forget about Beckett. If this decade has seen a “Mr. October” on the mound, it would be Beckett. But Weaver mixed and matched his pitches while allowing only one run over seven-and-one-third innings, and what do we know, the Red Sox were flying home hoping a kid who needed a strong September to make the postseason roster could save their season.
Of course, it didn’t happen. It was only a matter of time before the Red Sox, a franchise that has enjoyed a glut of playoff riches over the past six seasons, experienced a letdown like this one. They will be back, probably next year, and will have a chance to redeem their reputation as October big shots.
But in the meantime, it’s the Angels who await the winner of the Twins-Yankees series in the next round, ready to build upon their new swagger, and reach a second World Series in the past eight seasons.
Boston was supposed to be "Goliath" against the Angels. But after a change in temperament, and one lasting Papelbon fastball Sunday, the Angels are refusing to play "David".
You can reach Teddy Mitrosilis at firstname.lastname@example.org.