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WORLD SERIES | Diane Pucin

Angels' Fate Rests Well on Rookie Shoulders

October 28, 2002|Diane Pucin

John Lackey, who turned 24 last week, has been a big league pitcher for 125 days.

Brendan Donnelly, 31, who has been released six times in his professional career -- mostly by minor league teams, once by an independent minor league team -- was pitching in Puerto Rico a year ago.

Francisco Rodriguez, 20, was struggling in double A when this season began.

On Sunday, when the night was chilly and the atmosphere at a boil, in Game 7 of the first World Series the Anaheim Angels had played, three rookie pitchers gave the Angels eight innings of one-run, five-hit ball.

Three rookies, so different physically, mentally, emotionally, so different in talent and experience, marched onto the mound, one by one, energized by Lackey, the one who started. The three were determined to forget fatigue, ignore nerves, put aside doubt and just throw it.

Think about this.

It's the first time in 93 years that a rookie has won Game 7 of the World Series, and the Angels pitched three consecutive rookies in the final game.

What the Angels showed us Sunday night was the ultimate team approach to pitching. "Oh my God," pitching coach Bud Black said, "three guys, eight innings, one run. What can I say?

"Frankie's story in itself, he was having a rough year in A ball at one point. A 31-year-old rookie who everybody gave up on except himself. Lackey, we knew we'd see him eventually but pitching in the postseason, in Game 7 of the World Series? I don't think we foresaw that."

Last year during the final game of the World Series, Donnelly said he and his teammates in a Puerto Rican league hoped to watch the New York Yankees and the Arizona Diamondbacks. But their game went 21 innings, 6 1/2 hours, and the World Series had started.

"I come in to pitch the 21st," Donnelly said, standing with a red streamer at his feet, "and we've been watching the Series on TV between innings because they were showing the game on the scoreboard. But when the pitcher would stand on the rubber, they'd take the game off the big screen.

"So I figure if I step on the rubber in the 21st, they'll take the game off. But the Diamondbacks had runners on and I wanted to see how the game turned out. So I kept my foot off the rubber, just kept it off until Luis Gonzalez singled to win the game. Then I put my foot on the rubber. Oh, yeah, and I gave up the game-winning hit."

Donnelly said he had never pictured himself in the World Series, never thought about what it would be like to come into Game 7. "Honestly," Donnelly said, "I never thought I'd get here. Maybe in triple-A but never here."

Lackey, the big, strong hurler from Abilene, Tex., went five innings and threw 86 pitches while starting on three days of rest for the first time in his brief major league career. Lackey had always pictured himself in Game 7.

But not like this, not straining to find his fastball, willing himself to throw one more pitch, then one more after that.

"I'm fried," Lackey said.

That's Lackey, always honest, always a straight thinker and talker, a young man certain of his talent but not cocky or condescending about it.

On Saturday, after the Angels had made a miraculous comeback from 5-0 down in the seventh to beat the Giants, 6-5, in Game 6, Angel Manager Mike Scioscia told Lackey he was starting Game 7.

"I said that's what I wanted to hear," Lackey said. "I slept fine. There's only so much you can think about. I mean, every game I've pitched the last two months has been full of pressure. If you don't want a little pressure, you shouldn't be in the big leagues."

Black said there were two keys to the game -- Lackey getting out of the second and Lackey getting through the fifth.

"John giving us five meant we could do things the way we had hoped," Black said.

Black asked Donnelly to give him two innings. He wanted to save Rodriguez, who had thrown 46 pitches Saturday night, to only be needed in the eighth. So Donnelly gave Black two innings. "I used the whole park," Donnelly said.

And then came Frankie, the wide-eyed Rodriguez, the child raised by grandparents in Caracas, Venezuela, the kid who didn't reach the big leagues until September, the youngster with the "filthy stuff," according to playoff opponents.

"I can't imagine what it's like to be Frankie," Donnelly said, "because I can't imagine having his talent."

Rodriguez struck out the side in the eighth. "I am so happy," Rodriguez kept saying, repeating the only English words he had at his command at the time."This means everything," Donnelly said. "I don't know what this means yet," Lackey said. "I am so happy," Rodriguez said.

Three men, three rookies, three heads and hearts, one big moment.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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