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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Now Wired for High Tension

Angels specialized in winning close games during a pressure-packed division race, which could serve them well in the playoffs, starting tonight.

October 04, 2005|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

The fact that the Angels were able to lower their landing gear last Tuesday night and enjoy a smooth, gradual descent toward the end of the regular season belied the white-knuckle nature of Flight 2005.

The Angels, by clinching their second consecutive American League West title so early, had a week to rest their regulars and align their playoff rotation, calibrate their bullpen arms and enjoy some stress-free baseball in Oakland and Texas while other playoff teams sweated out the season's final hours.

But right up until the champagne, beer and tequila flowed in the visiting clubhouse at McAfee Coliseum, it was a six-month high-wire act for the Angels, who open an AL division series against the New York Yankees tonight in Angel Stadium.

There was as much relief as revelry in that wild division title-clinching party, and for good reason: The combination of superb pitching and spotty hitting resulted in a slew of close, low-scoring games and far too many tense moments -- 87 of 162 games were decided by two runs or fewer, and the Angels were 50-37 in those games.

But there are benefits to living on the edge, to playing so many innings knowing one pitch, one defensive miscue, one baserunning decision, can decide the game.

One, your kid closer learns the importance of focusing on that routine throw back from the catcher. Two, you become about as battle-tested for the playoffs as a team can be.

"No question, we've played a ton of tight, close games, and those are the kinds of games you see in the postseason," Angel left-hander Jarrod Washburn said. "Having played a lot of those games, it gives you confidence, with the bullpen we have, that we can win them."

The Yankees will provide the opponent tonight when Angel ace Bartolo Colon faces right-hander Mike Mussina in Game 1, just as they did at the start of the Angels' 2002 World Series run.

But make no mistake, these are not your 2002 Angels. That team could bludgeon you with bats and put together killer rallies that turned close games into blowouts.

These Angels, who were 33-26 in one-run games and 17-11 in two-run games, have to scrap, run the bases aggressively, play stingy defense and hope their pitchers hold whatever slim cushion the bats provide.

It's a formula that left players and coaches emotionally drained and took a toll on the relievers, who had a few monumental meltdowns in July and August.

But the Angels survived, their pitchers learned to thrive with virtually no margin for error, the team won 14 of its last 16 games -- nine by two runs or fewer -- and they say they'll be better for the experience.

"It will be very helpful knowing how to handle those situations, how to win those games," first baseman Darin Erstad said. "Some guys grind it out, some relax, there's no one way to handle it. When you're in enough of those games, you find out what works, what calms you best in those situations."

Erstad must have hit on something; in 19 playoff games he has batted .370 with nine runs batted in. He also had a number of clutch hits to key late-season victories the last two Septembers and has saved several runs with his glove.

So, what calms Erstad?

"I don't get calm," he said. "I like the anxiety. I like the tension. That stuff makes you sharper."

The Angels will have to play with that kind of edge to beat the Yankees, who have the power and patience to overwhelm any pitching staff that makes even a few mistakes in a short series.

These Bronx Bombers have baseball's deepest lineup, featuring seven players with 17 homers or more -- as a comparison, the Angels have two -- and a scary middle-of-the-order collection of sluggers in Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui.

"All of them are dangerous," Colon said. "To me, they're all cleanup hitters."

Colon has had a particularly rough time with Rodriguez, who has a career .442 average with seven homers and 16 runs batted in against Colon, three of those homers and nine RBIs coming in an April 26 game in Yankee Stadium.

"I've got to be careful with Alex, obviously," Colon said.

Not too careful. The Yankees ranked second in the league in home runs and second in walks, and if you pitch around one, he'll take the walk and let the guy behind him do some damage.

"If you get too careful and try to nibble, they'll take the walk," Washburn said. "You have to be aggressive, but in the strike zone. You have to make good pitches."

If Angel pitchers worry too much about whom they're facing, "the Yankees will already have the series won," catcher Bengie Molina said. "We know what kind of power they have, but if we make our pitches, we'll be all right."

Offensively, the Angels will need leadoff batter Chone Figgins, who led the major leagues with 62 stolen bases, to get on base and wreak havoc.

The Angels were successful in 21 of 27 stolen-base attempts against the Yankees this season, a potential distraction for Yankee pitchers.

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