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The Pennant Was in Angels' Grasp When Suddenly . . . : GAME 5 : A Contest, an Inning, a Decision, a Pitch--All Still Live in Infamy

March 10, 1987|MIKE PENNER | Times Staff Writer

MESA, Ariz. — Dave Henderson plays jai alai with the baseball, and the camera catches it all. We see the ball slingshot out of Henderson's glove and over the center-field fence. We see Bobby Grich exult over the sudden change of events and begin his home-run trot.

We see Grich round first base. We see him step on second base and push off in an explosion of emotion. Grich leaps into the air, thrusts a fist over his head, and the camera zooms in on his flushed, beaming face.

Freeze.

With that, the California Angels' 1986 highlight film ends. Grich is suspended on the screen for several moments as the narrator's voice intones, "But there would be no World Series for the Angels in 1986 . . . " Then, owner Gene Autry comes on to thank the fans for their support and the credits begin to roll.

Film editors succeeded where Gary Lucas and Donnie Moore failed. Only here does Game 5 of the 1986 American League championship series provide the Angels with a happy ending.

Left on the cutting room floor were all the agonizing events that followed Grich's hip-hop home run in the sixth inning.

No two-run homer by Don Baylor, which sliced the Angels' lead from 5-2 to 5-4 with one out in the ninth inning.

No controversial removal of starting pitcher Mike Witt by Gene Mauch, who sent in reliever Lucas, who promptly plunked Rich Gedman with his first pitch.

No 2-and-2 split-fingered fastball by Moore that hung around high enough and long enough for Henderson to hammer out of Anaheim Stadium, which pushed the Boston Red Sox ahead, 6-5.

No bottom-of-the-ninth rally by the Angels, which produced a tie but not a victory when Doug DeCinces and Grich failed to deliver with the bases loaded.

No 7-6 Angel defeat in 11 innings, bringing on the trail of tears that led back to Boston for the Angels' eventual elimination in Game 7.

Out of sight, out of mind?

Well, perhaps that was the intention. It is, after all, called a highlight film. And what the climax of this game meant to the Angels--from the doorstep of the World Series to the depths of despair--ranks as one of the lowest episodes in the franchise's history.

But what celluloid ignores, the memory does not erase. Game 5 of the 1986 American League playoffs has taken its place in the pantheon of postseason baseball moments--sidling up next to Bobby Thomson's home run in 1951, Bill Mazeroski's home run in 1960 and Carlton Fisk's home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series.

Even the Angels, so close to their first pennant and so bitterly disappointed, recognize the struggle for what it was.

Grich called it the greatest game he ever played in.

Lucas called it "a game I don't know if I'll ever get over. It's something I think about all the time. . . . During the winter, fans came up to me and said that was the best game they'd ever seen in Anaheim Stadium, that they hadn't seen a playoff game so intense since the Astros and the Phillies in 1980."

Mauch, given four months to remove himself from the sting of being one pitch away, doesn't flinch anymore when asked to look back. He describes Game 5 as "beyond equal, as far as drama goes" and the ninth inning of Game 5 as "the greatest ninth inning of baseball--ever."

And about his emotions in the aftermath, rumored to have been beyond repair last October?

"It's not what people think it was," Mauch says. "Sure we had it. It was right there, in the top of the ninth, and it got away.

"But we still had two games to play and Kirk McCaskill and John Candelaria pitching for us. There was not a doubt in my mind that we'd win one of those games.

"When we didn't, Game 5 became magnified."

The date that will live in Angel infamy is Oct. 12, 1986. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in Orange County and, for the Angel fans among the capacity Anaheim Stadium crowd of 64,223, the outlook was as bright as the sun overhead. Pregame talk in the stands focused on the remarkable turn of events of the previous evening--how the Angels had recovered from a 3-0 deficit against Roger Clemens in the bottom of the ninth and scored a 4-3 victory in the bottom of the 11th.

Victory in Game 4 pushed the Angels closer to the World Series than they had ever been before. They led Boston, three games to one, in the best-of-seven series. One more and they would meet the New York Mets.

And on the mound for the Angels was Witt, the club's best starting pitcher, winner of 18 games during the regular season and Game 1 of the playoffs. Opposing him was a tired Bruce Hurst, starting for the Red Sox on only three days' rest.

All in all, it seemed a good day to sip some nice California champagne.

The bottles were chilled after the sixth inning. Gedman had given the Red Sox an early 2-0 advantage with his two-run homer, a line drive that beat Angel right fielder George Hendrick to the seats just inside the foul pole, but Grich negated it with his long drive to center field.

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