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It's a role reversal for Angels

They were hounded before AL division series about their ineffectiveness against the Boston Red Sox in previous playoffs. Now, the foot is on the other spike as they prepare to face the New York Yankees in the Championship Series.

October 13, 2009|MIKE DiGIOVANNA

BOSTON — With their second-most dramatic postseason comeback in franchise history Sunday afternoon and the New York Yankees' division series-clinching win over the Minnesota Twins hours later, the Angels went from the haunted to the hunted.

Many of the questions posed to the Angels before their division series with Boston were of a mental, even mystical, nature: Are the Red Sox in your heads? How do you break the "hex" the Red Sox have over you?

The Angels disposed of those queries and the Red Sox -- with Sunday's comeback from a 5-1 fifth-inning deficit for a 7-6 victory in Fenway Park that completed the first playoff sweep in club history.

Juan Rivera hit a two-run single in the eighth inning, and Vladimir Guerrero's two-run single capped a three-run ninth for a win that nearly rivaled Game 6 of the 2002 World Series, when the Angels rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the seventh inning to beat the San Francisco Giants, 6-5.

Now it's on to the American League Championship Series against New York -- Game 1 of the best-of-seven series is Friday in Yankee Stadium -- and it will be the Yankees, of all teams, who will have to answer the same questions that grew wearisome for the Angels.

The Yankees may be baseball royalty, the franchise with 26 World Series trophies, but the Angels have won both of their playoff series against the Yankees, eliminating them in 2002 and 2005 division series.

The Angels are the only team with a winning record (79-66, including playoff games) against the Yankees since 1996. And they are 33-20 in their last 53 games against the Yankees, including a three-game sweep in Anaheim before the All-Star break.

The Yankees are girding for battle.

"We are going to have a nasty series," pitcher Andy Pettitte told reporters Sunday night. "It's going to be a war with us and the Angels, but we're looking forward to it."

Before the Angels played a makeup game in Yankee Stadium on Sept. 14, their clubhouse was filled with New York-based reporters peppering them with questions about why they've been so successful against the Yankees.

Those same questions were posed in the home clubhouse, where Manager Joe Girardi went so far as to characterize the makeup game as "a very important game."

The Yankees, with their $201-million payroll and cast of superstars, had the best record in baseball at the time and were well on their way to the AL East title, and one game against the Angels in September is "very important"?

Maybe the Angels were rattling around in the Yankees' heads at the time, but not so much by the end of that night.

Speedy outfielder Brett Gardner stole third base and scored on catcher Mike Napoli's throwing error to break an eighth-inning tie, and the Yankees went on to a 5-3 victory that seemed as cathartic to them as the Angels' emotionally charged 4-3 win in Fenway Park did to them three nights later.

In both cases, it was a confidence-boosting win over a team that had gotten the best of them, and a team they were most likely going to see again in October.

Sure enough, the Yankees and Angels are meeting again, the winner earning a berth in the World Series.

Both will have their hands full.

The Yankees have two horses at the top of their rotation, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, baseball's most decorated postseason closer in Mariano Rivera and a deep and powerful lineup led by Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, shredded by the New York media for past playoff failures, was five for 11 with two home runs and six runs batted in against the Twins and loves to hit in Angel Stadium, where he has a .335 average, 37 home runs and 82 RBIs in 89 games.

"Believe me, we have a huge challenge in front of us," Manager Mike Scioscia said Sunday, when asked about a possible Freeway World Series against the Dodgers. "Before we talk about a Freeway Series, we're going to have to beat an incredible team in the Yankees."

Ditto for the Yankees.

"What makes them tough is they hit, they pitch, they run, they steal, they play defense, good bullpen, good closer, good manager," said Jeter, the Yankees' shortstop since 1996. "I think that pretty much wraps it up."

Actually, there's more. The Angels, who played poorly in last year's division series loss to Boston, have a different look about them this October. They seem more sure of themselves, more hardened from their playoff failures, more confident.

They came through with clutch late-game hits against the Red Sox, played airtight defense, got superb starts from John Lackey and Jered Weaver and solid relief from Brian Fuentes, Darren Oliver and Jason Bulger.

Before the division series, pitcher Joe Saunders said the only way the Angels were going to shake Boston's playoff stranglehold on them was to take the field knowing they could win, not thinking they could win.

"If we're comfortable, confident, and play the way we're capable of playing, we'll be tough to beat," Saunders said. "If we play scared, on our heels, and waiting for bad things to happen, it's not going to be a good series. We can't beat ourselves."

Saunders didn't pitch against the Red Sox -- he was scheduled to start Game 4. But in the three games he observed, he saw a different look in the Angels' eyes, the look of a winner.

"It was more of a we-can-do-this attitude," Saunders said. "We gained a lot of experience from last year. There was a feeling of game on, let's go, if you beat us, fine, but we're going to give it our best. We made all the plays, made the pitches when we needed to. Payback was sweet."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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ALCS

ANGELS VS. YANKEES

Game 1: Friday at New York

4:30 p.m. PDT, Ch. 11

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