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BILL DWYRE

Angels' fans stand after John Lackey delivers

Ace comes through with a big effort against the Red Sox

October 09, 2009|BILL DWYRE

For right-handed pitching bulldog John Lackey, the Red Sox had gone quietly, but he didn't want to.

It was 9:22 p.m. in a raucous Angel Stadium. He had held Boston scoreless for 7 1/3 innings in this first game of a best-of-five American League division series. Torii Hunter had hit a three-run homer in the fifth. His Angels had added two more in the seventh.

Ghosts were being exorcised all over the place.

And yet, at his first sight of Manager Mike Scioscia heading his way, Lackey tossed his head back in disappointment, then slapped the baseball hard into his glove.

Lackey was like most Angels fans. He wanted more. A complete game, at least. The shutout too. His gestures were of a guy who wouldn't mind pouring a little salt in the wound. He had suffered enough.

Lackey hadn't won a playoff game since the seventh game of the Angels' only World Series victory. That was 2002. Same mound, but now feeling as if that had happened decades ago. Since then, he had lost five playoff games -- never pitching badly, succumbing by scores of 3-2, 5-2, 4-0, 4-1, and 3-2 -- the last three to the dreaded Red Sox.

When he grudgingly gave the ball to Scioscia and headed to the dugout, the red-clad crowd rose and communicated to him how it felt.

"That ovation meant a lot," he said. "They sometimes get criticized for not being loud enough, but they brought it tonight."

As did Lackey.

In essence, for him and his Angels, this wasn't so much the opener of a playoff series as it was the Sigmund Freud game. More than baseball, it was a therapy session. The Angels could have brought a couch into their dugout and got no arguments.

The Red Sox were in town, and the Angels had faced this before. Oh, my, had they ever. This was like a visit from your drunken ex-spouse, who took you for all your money and was back in town, wanting a loan. Until Thursday night, Angels' memories of the Red Sox in the postseason were almost all bad.

Lackey recognized that in a news conference two days ago, when he handled the first question, right out of the box. "The hex, huh?" he said.

The Angels have played the Red Sox four times previously in postseason play. They have never won a series. Their record is 4-13. When they won a game in last year's 3-1 division series setback to Boston, it broke a streak of 12 defeats going back to 1986.

That, of course, was the year the Angels were within one strike of their first pennant, in Game 5, when Donnie Moore gave up the homer to Dave Henderson. From that, it took the Angels 22 years to beat the Red Sox in the postseason, and even that brief moment of retribution was wiped out when Boston clinched the series the next night, exactly a year and two days ago.

The Donnie Moore game, produced two legendary things.

First was Al Michaels' call, even better than his more famous "Do You Believe in Miracles?!" As Henderson's ball cleared the fence, Michaels painted the picture like few others could: "And it's gone. Unbelievable. Astonishing. Anaheim Stadium was one strike away from turning into Fantasyland."

Second was foundation of the nightmarish legend. Moore's career was never the same. He was out of baseball in three years and, on July 18, 1989, he shot himself to death in his home in Anaheim Hills. Whether that had anything to do with the Henderson homer will never be known, but die-hard Angels fans will always believe it did.

Now, so sadly, figuratively and sordidly, every Red Sox victory since had seemed like another nail in Moore's coffin.

Some of the current players were in diapers in 1986. That doesn't compute with them. The ensuing failures, in 2004, '07 and '08 do, even though psychological edges are not the kinds of things discussed in baseball clubhouses.

But there was no arguing that, with each ensuing failure came increased pressure, admitted to or not. And that's why Thursday night's Game 1 was so crucial in the category of removing monkeys from backs. And we're not talking Rally Monkeys here.

Hunter dealt the first big blow. If this series ends well for the Angels, he may go down in history as the Angels' Ghost Buster.

At 8:19 p.m., in the fifth inning, with two on, he broke a 0-0 tie with a towering home run. It went over the Vegas.com sign in left center -- had the Angels luck changed? -- and onto the rocks and waterfall.

And there was a Ghost Buster 1-A, Lackey. He threw 114 pitches and looked ready to throw another 114, if Scioscia had let him.

It should be noted that Lackey's response to that standing ovation was a bit more than the usual tip of the cap. The cap came off, all right, but the tip had a bit more zip and snap.

Call it part "thank you" to the crowd and "take that" to the guys in the other dugout.

He would deny that, just as the Angels would the need to exorcise ghosts.

Which, of course, remains a work in progress.

--

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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