The American League Championship Series has finally been determined, and it should prove to be a doozy. It’s the kind of matchup that great sports movies are made from. It’s David versus Goliath or the bad guys versus the good guys. Black hats against white hats, and you don’t have to stretch your imagination very far to see which team is viewed as the good guys and the which is the bad.
On Friday, October 16, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim invade the Bronx to face the New York Yankees in a best of seven championship series. The prize is a trip to the World Series to take on either the Philadelphia Phillies or the Los Angeles Dodgers who begin their own quests for the ultimate reward on Thursday in Los Angeles.
This series has oodles of side stories to it. The Angels are the only team to have a historical winning record against the Yankees. They hold 319-267 advantage over New York, and their fans and news media point that out to their opposite numbers quite frequently. They also like to point out how much money the Yankees spend to “buy championships,” even though the Yankees haven’t tasted World Series champagne in 8 seasons.
There is also the emotional connection with Nick Adenhart whose number every member of the Angels squad wears on his jersey in remembrance of the 22-yearl old pitcher who was tragically killed by a drunk driver on April 10, 2009 after pitching the best game of his short career against the Oakland Athletics. The Angels dedicated their season to Adenhart and his jersey hangs in the dugout at every game. The fans even erected a memorial for Adenhart in front of the stadium between the two, red, giant batting helmets adorning the Angels’ home. It is a very touching scene.
The Angels also come into the ALCS brimming with confidence. After being ousted from the ALDS in 2004, 2007-08 by the Boston Red Sox the Halos exacted revenge by sweeping the Red Sox from this year’s divisional playoffs setting off a celebration in the middle of Fenway Park before a stunned home crowd.
They also have assurance in knowing they have had playoff dominance over the Yankees as well. In 2002 and 2005 the Angels eliminated the Bombers in the divisional series to send them packing for an early October vacation.
However, for all the success the Angels have enjoyed by making the playoffs in six of the last eight seasons they have only converted it once into a World Series trophy. That was in 2002 when the Angels miraculously came back from a 5-0 deficit in Game 6 of the Series against Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants to win the game 6-5 and then closed it out with a 4-1 victory to become the King of the Hill.
Indeed, the 2009 season has been an poignant, up-and-down, rollercoaster ride for the Angels.
So how do the Yankees counter all this sentiment and history?
First off, it won’t be easy, but it can be done. The Yankees themselves are riding an emotional high this season. After 85 years playing across the street they opened a new ballpark in the Bronx and signed three of the most highly prized and sought after free agents in the off season.
The new Yankee Stadium opened to rave reviews. It is a visual masterpiece that captured the new advances and technology of the 21st Century while capturing the magic of the old stadium. Additionally, the Bombers signed CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett and Mark Teixeira and the three of them have contributed mightily to the Yankees success of posting the best record in the majors this year, along with a return to the playoffs after missing them in 2008.
This topic is also a sore subject with the players, especially those who’ve been around since before the four championship seasons in 1996 and 1998-2000. The Yankees had made the playoffs every year from 1995 through 2007. Every season, except 1995, was under the guidance of manager Joe Torre. Torre left after the 2007 for Los Angeles and the Yankees hired ex-Yankees catcher Joe Girardi as the new skipper. Girardi’s team suffered numerous injuries throughout the season and there were also player issues that affected the clubhouse. It was too much to overcome and the Yankees failed to reach the post season after 13 straight years. It was an embarrassment for a franchise whose sole goal is to win the World Series every year. Anything less than that is viewed as an unsuccessful season.
What made it doubly humiliating was the fact that Torre went across the country to manage the Dodgers, and he guided them in his first season as manager to the post season. The Dodgers beat the favored Chicago Cubs in the divisional series before falling to the Phillies in the NL championship round.
By missing the playoffs Girardi came under the sights of the Yankees management, specifically George, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner. The start of the 2009 campaign didn’t help Girardi’s chances either. The Yankees, hamstrung by Alex Rodriguez’s well documented connection with steroids and other off the field scandals, started off the season very slowly. On top of all that, A-Rod underwent surgery on March 9 to remove a cyst and repair a torn labrum in his right hip. It wasn’t looking good for the Yankees.
Rodriguez returned to the lineup on May 8 and it was a shot of adrenalin to the team, and especially to Teixeira who was mired in a month+ long hitting slump. Although, New York began to improve with A-Rod’s presence in the order there were still things not going quite right.
In the first 8 meetings with the Red Sox the Yankees lost every game and just before the All-Star break the Yankees traveled to Anaheim for a 3-game series with the Halos. The Yankees had beaten the Angels 2-of-3 (one rainout) in May at Yankee Stadium, and had won 13 of their last 15 prior to coming to Anaheim. That didn’t impress the Angels much as they swept the Yankees going into the break. It was another embarrassing setback.
Starting with the 2nd half the Yankees were 55-34 and trailing the Red Sox by 3 games. The rumors were flying that Girardi’s job was on the line. Then somebody threw “the switch.”
Beginning in Detroit the Yankees went on an 8-0 run, bypassing the Sox to lead the division by 2.5 games. By the time the Sox and Yankees met for the first time in the 2nd half in a 4-game set, on August 6, at Yankee Stadium New York led the division and the Sox by 2.5 games.
This proved to be a turning point in the Yankees season. Get swept and they’d fall one half game behind Boston. Sweep and they’d expand their lead to 6.5 games. The Yankees swept.
In fact, in the remaining 10 games played in the second half the Yankees went 9-1 against the Red Sox to tie the season series at 9 games apiece. A Herculean feat that no one thought was possible given New York was down 8-0 in the first half.
The Yankees had similar, albeit a rare, success against the Angels. New York beat the Halos on September 14 in a makeup game from a rainout in May and then traveled to Anaheim to take 2-of-3 from the Angels in September to split the season series 5-5. The stat the Yankees point to is the reality they took 3 of the last 4 from them.
The Yankees finished the season 103-59. They were the only team to top the century mark in victories. They had 7 players with 20 or more home runs to tie a major league mark. CC Sabathia was tied for the major league lead in victories with 19 and is in the hunt for the Cy Young Award. Mark Teixeira tied Carlos Pena for the AL lead in home runs with 39 and he lead the AL with 122 RBI. He will be battling Minnesota’s Joe Mauer for MVP honors. Derek Jeter hit .334 this season and topped 200 hits (212) for the 7th time. Alex Rodriguez who entered the final game of the season with 28 HR and 93 RBI hit two bombs and drove in 7 to finish the year at 30 and 100. That was the 13th time he had reached that plateau in his career. Sabathia, Burnett and Andy Pettitte all reached double figures in wins.
The Yankees have as much to point to for momentum as the do the Angels. This is going to be a heavyweight confrontation with the two best teams in baseball (sorry Dodgers and Phillies) throwing haymakers at each other. The last team standing from this contest should have no problem dispatching their NL opponent for the World Series trophy.
One word of caution to the Halos. Don’t rely too heavily on emotion. The Yankees were dealing with the biggest shot of emotion provided this decade when the Twin Towers were felled by the acts of Al Qaeda terrorists. That year everyone, even fans in Boston, became New Yorkers and pulled for the Yankees. Still, it wasn’t enough as the Arizona Diamondbacks had other ideas and ruined a parade down the Canyon of Heroes by beating the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
Enough talking. Let the games begin and may the best team win.