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Friday, October 23, 2009
Moves making ALCS more interesting

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Outside the visitors' clubhouse at Angel Stadium were 20 cases of Korbel sparkling wine on a steel flatbed trolley, sitting there, it turned out, for nothing.

And so now, after the Angels' rousing 7-6 win that extended the American League Championship Series to a Game 6 on Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, everyone is on notice that the Angels, even after their 10-1 beatdown in Game 4, did not enter Game 5 without prospects, willfully subservient to the Yankees' championship march.

The intensity of the seventh inning, when the Yankees tore the Angels' 4-0 lead apart, transforming it into a 6-4 lead, only to have the Angels respond with a winning three-run rally in the bottom of the inning, ripped away whatever tentativeness was left in this series, exposing the participants to championship-level baseball at its most pressurized, each performance magnified. The Angels clawed for their season as viciously as the Yankees tried to extinguish it.

Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter
The Yankees wanted to put away the Angels in Game 5, but instead the ALCS moves back to New York.

The players are not the only ones on notice. After curious moves and nonmoves, both managers, Mike Scioscia and Joe Girardi, are also on notice that baseball managers in general may be ridiculed for not being as important to victories as, say, football coaches, but they certainly can contribute to losses, season-ending, career-altering losses.

And on an individual level, the players realize that the air is getting awfully thin these days. Outside of the World Series, there is nowhere else to go but home for the winter. The Philadelphia Phillies are resting and waiting near the summit, and stars and role players alike are under the heaviest microscope, the championship opportunities await, each time through the batting order.

With one or two games remaining in the season, the weekend offers the even greater intrigue of whether Joe Saunders can pitch as well in an elimination game at Yankee Stadium as he did in Game 2, if Andy Pettitte can keep a resurgent Angels team down. It should be noted that the first surge of the series for Los Angeles came against Pettitte, who in Game 3 gave up a hit in every full inning he pitched, including the series-altering two-run homer by Vladimir Guerrero.

And should the Angels win Saturday, the intrigue would be whether Scioscia would actually pitch Scott Kazmir or Jered Weaver, or if he would pitch the lionhearted John Lackey on two days' rest.

One thing must be for certain: If Game 6 is postponed -- forecasts call for an 80 percent chance of rain, some reports estimate up to 2 inches' worth -- Lackey would have to be the prime candidate to face CC Sabathia in a winner-take-all finale.

In turn, each team can lay claim to certain advantages. The Yankees have a 3-2 lead in games. They are at home, where they won 57 games during the regular season, more than any team in baseball. They have yet to lose at Yankee Stadium this postseason, perfect in four tries, aided too by the kind of late-game magic that championship teams always seem to have.

Alex Rodriguez is as dangerous as he's ever been in the postseason, intentionally walked in his final two at-bats, the latter even when he represented the tying run in the top of the ninth. Mark Teixeira, known only for his glove in the series, began to awaken in the Game 4 rout and broke through with a three-run double in the seventh inning of Game 5, his first RBIs of the postseason since his 12th-inning game winner in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Twins.

But Girardi has his concerns. Nick Swisher ended the game Thursday, losing a dramatic battle with Angels closer Brian Fuentes with the bases loaded and two out in the ninth inning. Swisher, known for his patience, but hitting .118 in the series, did not look comfortable, leaping on the first two pitches, even though -- because the bases were loaded -- the pressure was squarely on Fuentes.

"I was looking for something to drive up the middle, but he got me on the hands," Swisher said.

The Bridge to Mariano Rivera has been the veritable bridge to nowhere. Neither Phil Hughes nor Joba Chamberlain has been reliable this postseason. Hughes, who lost in Game 5, has a 3.38 ERA in the series, but has been hit hard. Chamberlain owns a 9.00 ERA.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera proved yet again the breadth of the gap between him and every other closer.

The difference-maker, of course, is Rivera. And regardless of what the Yankees do for the remainder of the series, his two-thirds of an inning in the eighth of Game 5 underscored his greatness as a pitcher.

Down a run, Chamberlain entered in the eighth. He gave up a double and a one-out infield single to Aybar, who then stole second base. Needing to keep the deficit at a run, with runners on second and third, Girardi called on Rivera, who hadn't given up a sacrifice fly all season. Figgins hit a soft liner to right and Abreu flied to end the inning.

Of all the positions in all of professional team sports, there is no greater gap than the best closer of all time to the second-best. He is that good.

The Angels, meanwhile, are suddenly muscular and alive, and in the first and seventh innings of Game 5, where they scored all seven of their runs, their most dangerous players finally looked the part for the first time in the series.

Take, for example, Guerrero. Respected for his past -- a career .321 hitter, 407 home runs, nine 100-RBI seasons -- but not considered nearly as fearsome in his present, he is now 3-for-10 since homering off Pettitte. He ripped an RBI double in the first against Burnett, and with two out in the seventh, faced Hughes.

Guerrero stood in, a Hall of Fame player in a Hall of Fame moment. He is not what he once was, certainly, and it appeared -- because of his ginger handling of Torii Hunter -- that Hughes preferred to pitch to Guerrero. These playoffs must be hell on Guerrero's pride, a once-dangerous player who twice over the campaign has been in championship situations the preferred matchup of the opposition. In Boston, in the ninth inning of an elimination game for the Red Sox, the Red Sox intentionally walked Hunter to face Guerrero, who in turn rocketed a two-run single that provided the winning, season-ending margin.

In the seventh, leading 6-5 with two out, Hughes attacked Guerrero, first throwing a ball and then a strike. Guerrero cut at a curveball away, far off the plate, to make the count 1-2. Then, Hughes attacked again, and Guerrero bounced a single to center.

That's how intense Game 5 truly was. The Angels were clearly re-energized from the start, unwilling to be stick figures for A.J. Burnett. After taking first pitch after first pitch in Game 2, they leaped on each Burnett bullet -- all of his fastballs in the same low, at-the-knees location -- and scored four runs in the first inning on 12 pitches. The score was 4-0 before Burnett recorded his first out, and it was Bobby Abreu, Hunter, Guerrero and Morales who recorded the hits in the inning.

In the winning seventh, it was Abreu, Hunter, Guerrero and Morales again who had the biggest hands in the comeback.

The pressure is everywhere. Girardi, disciple of Joe Torre, veered from the traditional Torre script and wound up crashing headfirst into a tree. Twice in this series, Girardi has been bitten, and twice the bite was poisonous.

Mike Scioscia and John Lackey
Angels manager Mike Scioscia had some tough decisions to make in Game 5, including the unpopular choice of lifting starter John Lackey in the seventh.

After the Yankees burst through in the six-run seventh, Girardi gambled by allowing Burnett to start the seventh with a two-run lead facing the bottom of the order. But this is no normal bottom of the order, for Jeff Mathis is the hottest hitter on the Angels.

In the old days, Torre would have summoned his Table of Trust -- meaning the one or two bullpen stalwarts -- before proceeding directly to Rivera. Burnett had controlled the game, but was not so good that leaving him in the game was not a serious, calculated risk. Mathis ripped a single and Erick Aybar, pesky and dangerous, drew a walk.

For his part, Scioscia nearly cost the Angels the season with his decisions, rightly or wrongly. Though the Yankees seemed to be wearing him down, Lackey had been brilliant and resolute and ferocious in not wanting to exit the game, yelling at Scioscia something in the vicinity of "THIS IS MINE. NO! THIS IS MINE." Lackey is a free agent at the end of the season and his performance in Game 5 made him an even richer man, his competitiveness burning. Nevertheless, Scioscia removed his ace with the bases loaded and two out for Darren Oliver, who had been great, to face Teixeira, who hit a three-run double.

"In making the move, my heart said, 'Hey, leave John in.' My head said, 'Let's try to turn Tex around and get out of the inning right there.' I think I just have a lot of confidence in John. He might have had enough to get in there and get Tex out, but I thought to turn him around at that point was the move. Obviously, it didn't work," Scioscia said.

In the eighth, with Rivera on the mound, Scioscia had his speed team on the field -- Reggie Willits on third, Aybar on second, Figgins at the plate.

Here was an opportunity for the Angels to strike boldly and win the game, to give Fuentes more than a one-run margin. Several Yankees players were expecting Figgins to bunt, for Rivera had not given up a sacrifice fly all season.

"No way was [Rivera] going to give in even-up," one Yankees player said. "I was saying in the dugout to expect some action -- drag bunt, squeeze, suicide, something."

But Scioscia let Figgins swing away.

Scioscia has a big problem. Fuentes has been shaky if not downright scary as a closer. In Game 5, Scioscia chose to remove the fireballing Weaver -- who had struck out Derek Jeter on a nasty fastball to end the eighth -- in favor of his closer. Fuentes saved 48 games for the Angels this season, but there is no question that the Yankees believe they can score on him.

"It was a one-run game, especially with some of the matchups coming up with Johnny Damon and Tex, we would go with Fuentes," Scioscia said of his decision to remove Weaver. "If we scored a couple more we were going to let Weave go until we got to the left-handed slot after Alex [Rodriguez]."

And so the end to a terrific series is here, either in one final act Saturday or two. The stars have been great, the role players -- Mathis and Howie Kendrick for the Angels, David Robertson for the Yankees -- have arrived in big moments. There are others -- Juan Rivera and Swisher -- for whom the biggest moments have yet to be kind. The managers have both been on notice. Each has his issues, Girardi's moves -- save for Rivera -- have cost him, while Scioscia seems conflicted but ready to win or lose with Fuentes. The big winner, however, has been anyone who enjoys the unique and intense pressure of playoff baseball.

"Obviously, you hope that we could wrap it up and could be done with tonight," Pettitte said. "We knew this was going to be a tough series. You know, I was prepared and expecting it and preparing myself to be ready for Saturday's start, that's for sure."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball" and of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com or followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/hbryant42.