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Angels Relax and Enjoy It

Real pressure was when they were trying to clinch playoff spot, but they have excelled since.

October 19, 2002|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

Stepping into the batter's box against San Francisco Giant closer Robb Nen with the tying run on third base and one out in the bottom of the ninth inning of a World Series game ... a tense moment for an Angel? Certainly. A moment of overwhelming pressure and anxiety? Nah.

These Angels have felt stress, but not during the American League division series against the New York Yankees, and not during the AL championship series against the Minnesota Twins.

So why should the World Series against the Giants -- Game 1 will be played tonight at Edison Field -- be any different for an Angel team that has been as loose and carefree during this postseason run as a bunch of neighborhood kids playing stickball in the street?

"I'm surprised I've been able to relax so much during the playoffs," said Angel right fielder Tim Salmon, who is batting .242 with two homers and seven runs batted in.

"I always heard the hardest part was getting to the playoffs, and that once you're there, you relax and enjoy it. There have been some tense moments, but for the most part, I haven't felt the stress of the playoffs like I did those last four days before we clinched [a playoff berth]. That was more stressful than anything I've faced here."

That's because an Angel team that knew nothing but disappointment in its star-crossed 42-year history lost four consecutive games from Sept. 21-25, stirring fears both inside and outside the clubhouse of another epic collapse.

As the final week of the regular season approached and the team closed in on its first playoff berth in 16 years, the Angels, a relaxed bunch that seemed immune to outside forces as long as it followed Manager Mike Scioscia's one-game-at-a-time mantra, tensed up like a muscle spasm.

Hoping to clinch a playoff spot with eight games remaining, the Angels lost to the Seattle Mariners, 6-4, on Sept. 21, then lost three one-run games in a row while the Mariners were winning three straight games.

"You could see us swinging at bad pitches, feeling for the ball, not letting loose," Angel bench coach Joe Maddon said. "We were taking strikes and swinging at balls, not hitting with runners in scoring position. We were more tentative and started over-thinking a bit.... When you want something so badly, you start gripping on it."

The Angels took the field against the Texas Rangers again on Sept. 26 with this thought swirling through their heads: If they lost and the Mariners won, they would face Seattle, their longtime nemesis, the team that had erased a 13-game early-August deficit to overtake the Angels in 1995, in a meaningful season-ending series.

"For me, personally, that's what made it so stressful, that this might be a replay of 1995," Salmon said. "Seattle got hot ... I didn't want to have to come home and play them. You don't want to put yourself in that position."

Instead, the Seattle series was rendered moot with the Angels' 10-5 victory over the Rangers, setting off a wild champagne celebration and emitting a collective sigh of relief.

"It was like one giant exhale, no question," Erstad said. "With the history of the organization, with what happened in 1995, it was so great to finally get to the postseason. Now, it's fun. There's no point in being uptight, tense, or pressing too much."

If the Angels do win the World Series, they might look back on that day in Texas -- and not the eight-run inning against the Yankees in the division series, the 10-run outburst in the seventh inning against the Twins or anything that happens against the Giants -- as the defining moment of their season.

Amid the celebration that day, Maddon had an inkling it wouldn't be the last time for champagne spraying in an Angel clubhouse this season.

"The day it happened, I said, 'Watch out,' " Maddon said. "Once we got over that hump, I knew everyone would relax and play the way they have been all year, and that's what I've seen so far in the playoffs."

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