Sunday, October 11, 2009
Vlad delivers in biggest spot for Angels
By Jorge Arangure Jr. ESPN The Magazine
BOSTON -- Vladimir Guerrero was the last one out of the Angels' dugout, and when he reached the mound to greet his celebrating teammates after their 7-6 win over the Red Sox, he jumped with joy on gimpy legs that could barely lift his body, with leaps that appeared more like stilted pirouettes.
At one point, Guerrero was one of the most feared hitters in baseball. But injuries and time have turned the limping Guerrero into the aging superstar -- not unlike the graying actor -- who may not perform as he once did, but on a special occasion can give a star turn.
Vladimir Guerrero's two-run single in the top of the ninth propelled the Angels over the Red Sox.
As much as anyone, Guerrero had been to blame for the Angels' woeful performances recently against the Boston Red Sox in the postseason. Because of injuries and wear and tear from his often reckless style of play, Guerrero had appeared hapless in the outfield, and listless at the plate in three consecutive postseason series losses to Boston. He had often flailed at fastballs beyond his reach, took hacks in pitchers' counts and took strikes in hitters' counts.
The lack of discipline that had made him such a good player, now had turned him into a liability. Yet the stubborn Angels continued to put him in the middle of the their lineup, and the stubborn Guerrero never changed his style: He never watched video, he never became more patient.
With a rally mounting against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth inning on Sunday in Game 3 of the ALDS, Red Sox manager Terry Francona -- with runners on second and third in a one-run game and Torii Hunter at the plate -- made the decision that he would rather face the aged and undisciplined Guerrero with the game hanging in the balance. Hunter was intentionally walked.
In one of the luxury suites, Angels owner Arte Moreno turned to his wife and said, "How do you walk Torii to get to Vlad?" In the Angels dugout, outfielder Juan Rivera wondered what the Red Sox were thinking. Shortstop Erick Aybar called to Guerrero and yelled, "Let's go Vlad!"
The myth of Vlad had become greater than the reality. Guerrero was just 1-for-10 with three strikeouts lifetime against Papelbon, while Hunter had three hits in five at-bats against the Boston closer. Guerrero did not have a postseason RBI since the 2005 ALDS and Papelbon had not allowed a run in his entire postseason career. Guerrero's 15 home runs this year were his lowest total since he had 11 in his rookie year in 1997.
"Pap throws strikes and he had a lot of success against Guerrero," Francona said. "We thought it would put us in a better chance to win."
Guerrero was mostly expressionless in the on-deck circle, though his glare was indicative to his teammates and coaches that he was focused.
"He's still a guy that's dangerous," Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "Don't put Vlad in that situation. He couldn't wait to get into the box. He had that look on his face where you say, 'Oh my God.'"
Except for the four intentional balls he threw to Hunter, and a 92 mph sinker he had thrown to Bobby Abreu, Papelbon had not thrown a pitch slower than 94 mph since he had come into the game with two outs in the top of the eighth inning. So while Guerrero never watches film and never plans an at-bat before stepping into the box, even he knew whatever pitch came his way would come fast.
"I wasn't looking for any particular pitch," Guerrero said. "I just swung."
Guerrero lined a 95 mph fastball into center field to drive in the deciding runs in Los Angeles' comeback win. In truth, Guerrero's one-pitch at-bat was an affirmation of being Vlad: swing wild and swing often.
"He's gotten me before with some high fastballs, but thankfully he threw it down the middle," Guerrero said of Papelbon.
Guerrero's clutch hit was as much redemption for him as it was for the Angels, who had never beaten the Red Sox in a postseason series and had lost nine of their past 10 postseason games against Boston heading into this year's ALDS.
A loss on Sunday against the Red Sox would have put the Angels in the precarious position of having to face Boston ace Jon Lester in Monday's Game 4 and then Josh Beckett in a possible Game 5. A noon ET start time caused both teams to start sluggishly. Hunter said he had two cups of coffee prior to the game, rather than his normal one cup, so he could wake up. Boston eventually took a 5-1 lead and it appeared that perhaps once again the Angels would falter against the Red Sox.
The Angels, however, rallied in the sixth against Boston starter Clay Buchholz by loading the bases with no outs. But reliever Daniel Bard entered the game and allowed just one of the inherited runners to score. Another rally by the Angels in the eighth against reliever Billy Wagner caused Francona to bring in Papelbon to face Rivera with runners on second and third.
"I was looking for a fastball," Rivera said. "Pretty much every time I face him he throws me fastballs. I knew that if I got one I couldn't let it pass."
Bobby Abreu had three hits, including a pivotal double in the ninth inning for the Angels.
Rivera singled in two runs on the first pitch he saw from Papelbon. By the next inning, the Angels had noticed a pattern: Papelbon was simply trying to get by with just his fastball and hard sinker. They knew that it was in Papelbon's nature to be aggressive -- "He comes right after you," Abreu said -- so most pitches were likely to be in the strike zone. By the time Guerrero came to the plate, the Angels had solved the Boston closer.
"I was more comfortable with Papelbon pitching against us in the eighth and ninth than Daniel Bard," Angels GM Tony Reagins said. "We've had some good at-bats against Papelbon. Once you've seen a guy so much, you're not intimidated by him as much. Taking nothing away from him, we just felt it was our time."
Los Angeles' celebration was unexpectedly raucous for a first-round win, though perhaps predictable considering its recent frustrations against Boston. While reporters waited outside the clubhouse, screams and loud music could be heard inside the clubhouse. Several players came out to greet family members. Aybar sprayed some of the friends and family members with champagne. Then Guerrero, with a beaming smile, came out of the clubhouse and greeted his friends and cousin with a big hug.
"He looks so happy," Aybar, one of Guerrero's close friends, said. "All the time he's so mellow, but look at him now."
Guerrero eventually returned to the clubhouse. After several moments of celebration, Guerrero peeled off part of his champagne-soaked uniform and headed to the trainer's room. He slowly took off his ankle wraps and then finally sat down and grabbed a large pack of ice and wrapped it around his gimpy right knee.
Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.