Just Another Chapter in the Yankees “Bronx Tale”

Another classic game and another nail biter between the two best teams in major league baseball.  This game will end up on “Yankee Classics” for two reasons.  First, the Yankees won the game in the 13th inning on a throwing miscue by Maicer, and secondly, because it was a classic duel between two longtime rivals striving for baseball supremacy.

The New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (I liked it better when it was just the Anaheim or California Angels) have been cross country rivals ever since 1961 when the Angels, under the ownership of the “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry, was granted a spot in the American League.  The Angels shared digs with the Los Angeles Dodgers, first at the Coliseum in LA, and then later at Dodger Stadium.  This arrangement lasted until 1966 when the Angels opened up their own park in Anaheim and became the California Angels.

When you hear of a team having another team’s “number” you don’t have to look any further than the Angels and Yankees.  The Halos are the only team who has a historical winning record against the Bronx Bombers.  And, not just by a little either.  These two teams have met 586 times in the regular season and the Angels are 52 game over .500 against New York.

Living out here on the west coast, but still rooting for the boys in pinstripes I have seen my share of disappointments over the years.  More times than not I, like a lot of other displaced Yankee fans in and around Orange County, California, have seen the Angels make the Yankees look like a second rate team.  Whether the Angels were in last place or first they’ve always played the Yanks like it is the 7th game of the World Series.

Earlier this season was no exception.  In July (10-12) the Yankees traveled to Anaheim for a 3-game set with the Halos.  It was their last series before the All-star break and they were coming in with a hot hand.  The Yankees had just won 15 of their last 17 games, but that didn’t matter to the Angels.  In Game 1 of the series the Yankees had a 5-0 lead, but blew it, and the Halos won 10-6.  In Game 2 the Yankees rewarded me on my birthday by allowing the Angels to erase a 4-1 lead by giving up 7 runs in the 5th inning as the Halos won going away 14-8.  Game 3 saw the Angels overcome a 1-0 Yankee lead by scoring four runs in the 4th inning and squeaking out a 5-4 win to sweep the Yankees going into the break.

Fortunately the Yankees didn’t stay down long and they ended up by going 48-25 in the 2nd half to win the AL East Division by 8 games over second place Boston and they garnered the best record in baseball by six games over the Angels.  In fact, in September (21-23) the Yankees returned to Anaheim to take 2-of-3 from the Angels, splitting the season series 5-5.  There was room for optimism.  A glimmer of hope was on the horizon.

Both teams went into the divisional series with different expectations.  The Angels were facing the Red Sox who, like the Angels are with the Yankees, had the Halos’ number.  As many so-called experts saw the Red Sox winning the ALDS as those picking the Angels.  In 2004, 2007 and 2008 the Red Sox ousted the Halos from the divisional series with a combined 9-1 record.  You don’t even want to ask any longtime Angel fan about 1986.  The Angels lone win came during the ’08 series.  Although they lost the Angels won, because they finally had beaten their longtime playoff antagonists in a divisional game.  Now, at least they knew they could beat those pesky (no pun intended) Red Sox in a playoff setting.

The proof of that pudding came in this year’s divisional series as the Angels swept the Red Sox out of the playoffs and did so convincingly.  This set up this year’s confrontation with the Yankees.

On the other side of the coin, the Yankees were expected to beat the Minnesota Twins in their half of the ALDS quite handily.  Most experts predicted an easy series with the Yankees sweeping the Twins.  After all the Yankees won the regular season series 7-0, and the Twins have never played well at Yankee Stadium.  Well, the Yankees did sweep, but it was anything but easy.  In fact in all 3 games the Yankees had to come from behind to beat Minnesota to set up the first ALCS meeting between the Bombers and the Halos.

Depending on who you asked, the predictions about who would win this series was a varied as could be.  A lot of people pointed the Angels historical success as well as post season dominance.  The Angels rotation is better than the Yankees.  The Angels defense is better or the bullpen.  You would hear the same thing said about the Yankees.  The only area the Yankees were given a clear advantage was in the role of closer.  Mariano Rivera versus Brian Fuentes was a no-contest.  Rivera wins hands down.  Much of this predicting has been regional.  Los Angeles/Orange County area papers said the Angels would win, but newspapers in the east picked the Yankees.

In Game 1 the Yankees behind CC Sabathia handled the Angels very easily, winning 4-1.  The Halos helped by playing very sloppy and uncharacteristically poor defense.  However, for anyone who knows the playoff history between these two teams, the Yankees also won Game 1 from the Angels in the 2002 and 2005 ALDS only to lose those series in the end.

Last night, it appeared that the Yankees were going to follow past playoff scripts.  Game 2 was very important for both teams.  If the Yankees won they go to Anaheim up in the series 2-0 forcing the Angels to have to beat New York in 4 of the next 5 games.  Lose, and the series is tied 1-1 with the next three games played at Angel Stadium.  That would mean that if the Angels sweep the Yankees in their park they send the Yankees down to another humiliating defeat without ever getting the opportunity to get back to New York.

The Yankees jumped to an early 2-0 lead behind a run scoring triple by Cano in the 2nd inning, followed by a solo home run in the 3rd by Derek Jeter.  Yankee starter AJ Burnett was cruising through the Angels lineup in the first 4 innings, but, as has been the case in the past, Burnett got into trouble in the 5th inning.

Burnett surrendered a leadoff double to Izturis, a single to Erick Aybar scoring Izturis, then hit Chone Figgins with a pitch.  After getting Bobby Abreu to fly out to left for the 2nd out Burnett walked Torii Hunter to load the bases.  With the ever dangerous Vladimir Guerrero at the plate Burnett uncorked a wild pitch past catcher Jose Molina allowing Aybar to score from third, tying the game at 2 apiece.  Fortunately, Guerrero cooperated by grounding out to short to end the inning.

Once again, it appeared that the Yankees were right where the Angels wanted them.  Lose Game 1, give the Yankees a lead in Game 2 only to come back to yank the rug out from under New York’s feet and steal another playoff series.

However, something different happened.  The Yankees refused to cooperate.  For the next five innings the Angels and Yankees threw up zeroes.  In the 11th inning Yankees RHRP Alfredo Aceves took the mound to face the Halos.  All through the 2009 campaign Aceves has been the one guy manager Joe Girardi could point to in order to get the job done.  If he needed an emergency starter or a pitcher who could come into the middle of the game to give the Yankees length Girardi called on Aceves.

Nonetheless, Aceves committed the pitcher’s cardinal sin by walking the leadoff batter.  He gave Gary Matthews, Jr. a free pass and after moving to 2nd on a sacrifice bunt Matthews scored on a soft liner by Figgins to left field in front of Johnny Damon.  Oh how many times had Yankee fans seen the Angels come back like this.

Aceves got out of the inning without any further trouble, but the damage had been done.  The Yankees had dug themselves into another hole against the team whom they’ve suffered their greatest failures.

For Yankee fans this game took on the look of a bad car crash.  It was ugly, but you had to watch.

In the bottom of the 11th inning Angel manager Mike Scioscia sent in his closer Brian Fuentes.  Fuentes lead the American League in saves in ’09, but had blown 7 as well.  The first man he faced was Alex Rodriguez.  This Rodriguez was different from the Rodriguez the Angels have faced in the past.  This guy has been hitting and driving in runs.

Fuentes quickly got ahead of A-Rod by throwing 2 four-seam fastballs by him.  With the count 0-2 Fuentes made the mistake of going to the well once too often and tried to jam a third four-seamer by Rodriguez.  A-Rod did what all good hitters are supposed to do.  He promptly punched the ball over the right field wall to tie the game.

Said Fuentes to reporters after the game. “I was trying to elevate and didn’t get it up enough,” Fuentes talking about the pitch allowing A-Rod to drive the ball. “I felt like I threw the ball really well minus the one pitch. Unfortunately, it cost us the game. I take full responsibility for that.”

The two teams traded zeroes in the 12th, and the Yankees kept the Halos off the board in the top of the 13th.  This set up another improbable finish for a club who has been doing the improbable all season long.

Girardi started the bottom of the frame by sending up pinch hitter Jerry Hairston, Jr. to face the hard throwing Ervin Santana.  Hairston responded by lining a single to center.  Reserve center fielder Brett Gardner did his job by sacrifice bunting Hairston to 2nd base.  Santana intentionally walked Cano in order to set up a potential inning ending double play.  Outfielder Melky Cabrera tried to cooperate with the Angels by hitting a hard grounder to second baseman Izturis’ left.  With Hairston moving to third and Cano to second Izturis made a beautiful grab, but instead of going to first to get Cabrera he decided to go to second.  The ball sailed by Aybar allowing Hairston to score the winning run.

It was the second game in a row where a team, which prides itself on playing sound defensive, has made a poor decision costing them a game.

“It shouldn’t have come down to that,” Chone Figgins said when  reporters asked him about Izturis wild throw. “We had too many opportunities that got away from us. That’s why we lost.”

Neither team did a great job in potential run scoring situations.  The Halos stranded 16 runners and the Yankees 12.

However, when it counted most the Yankees came through.

Hairston put a personal spin on his contribution.

“I knew if I got a chance to do something, I wanted to do something positive,” Hairston said after the game. “This game isn’t easy. I just wanted to enjoy the moment. My grandfather never had the opportunity that I’ve had. That was definitely for him.”

A-Rod who has now hit three, dramatic, late inning home runs told reporters, “I know I had a blast out there today. That was a great game. That’s what I’ve been doing all year — trying to keep things simple and not trying to think too much.”

Perhaps Joe Girardi summarized the game best.

“We’re fortunate to come out on top in this game, because it was a great game,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “And there were some miscues. Fortunately we were on the right side of it.”

The series now shifts to Anaheim where the next 3 games are scheduled.   Game 3 is scheduled for Monday at 4:13 EST for the first pitch.  It will be Andy Pettitte versus Jered Weaver.  In order to return to the Bronx the Angels have to take 2 out of 3.  On the other hand, the Yankees have the opportunity to do what no other team before them has done.  Celebrate a playoff series win on the Angels home field.

This series is hardly over and both teams know it.  That said the Yankees are now treading on heretofore unknown territory.  They are half way to a series celebration over their most successful playoff opponents.

Just another chapter in the Yankees latest ‘Bronx Tale.’

NOTE:  Derek Jeter just keeps adding to his legacy.  His home run in the 3rd inning was the 19th of his playoff career moving him past Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle (18) for third place behind Manny Ramirez (29) and Bernie Williams (22).

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