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It's a sure bet Angels are confident about facing Yankees

High-powered New York is the favorite in the American League Championship Series, but Angels center fielder Torii Hunter says no one "is shaking in their boots." Game 1, weather permitting, is Friday night.

October 16, 2009|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | ON THE ANGELS

NEW YORK — Torii Hunter doesn't condone gambling, but he had some words of caution for those leaning toward the favored New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series against the Angels, which opens, weather permitting, tonight in Yankee Stadium.

"If you're a betting man, I'm pretty sure you'll go with the Yankees because of the payroll they have and the [future] Hall of Famers they have," the Angels' center fielder said.

"They've got Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Godzilla [Hideki Matsui], CC Sabathia, one of the best left-handers in the game, Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time . . . you want me to keep going?

"There's a lot of guys over there, so if you were a betting man, yeah, you might go with the Yankees. But at the same time, you might lose your money."

No disrespect to Minnesota, but these are not the Justin Morneau-less Twins the Yankees are facing in this best-of-seven series for the AL pennant.

The Angels have power and speed, a deep and talented rotation, an improved bullpen and a versatile and productive bench.

They not only swept the Boston Red Sox in the division series, they beat closer Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't given up an earned run in 26 playoff innings, with three ninth-inning runs in Game 3.

They are playing "with fire, with passion, with purpose," as Hunter said, alluding to the inspiration they're deriving from the memory of Nick Adenhart, the 22-year-old pitcher who was killed in an April car crash, and they do not fear the Yankees.

The Angels are the only AL 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 them, including a three-game sweep in Anaheim before the All-Star break.

"We're gladiators, we're ready to play -- nobody here is shaking in their boots," Hunter said. "If we play the game the way we've been playing for the last six or seven games, I feel we have a good chance against any pitcher, any team."

The Yankees, of course, are not just any team. They have eight players with 22 home runs or more, and Teixeira and Rodriguez combined for 69 homers and 222 runs batted in this season, the most prolific middle-of-the-order duo since David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were winning championships with the Red Sox.

"They're probably the two best hitters in our league right now," said pitcher John Lackey, who will start Game 1 for the Angels. "It's going to be a tremendous challenge. . . . But I'm not going to get intimidated by anybody. That's why I'm throwing [tonight]."

Though the Angels have more team speed and love to press the action with their aggressive base-running, Jeter stole 30 bases this season, and the Yankees have a game-changing speedster in reserve outfielder Brett Gardner, who scored the winning run in a Sept. 14 game against the Angels after stealing third.

They also have four switch-hitters -- Teixeira, Jorge Posada, Nick Swisher and Melky Cabrera -- who can present matchup problems for opposing pitchers.

"You have to throw strikes, get ahead of those guys and put them on the defensive, or they're going to hurt you," said left-hander Joe Saunders, the Angels' Game 2 starter.

Lackey and Jered Weaver were successful with that approach against the Red Sox, Lackey throwing 7 1/3 shutout innings in Game 1 and Weaver 7 1/3 one-run, two-hit innings in Game 2.

"The key is to trust your stuff and pitch to your strengths with quality stuff in the strike zone," Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher said. "Knowing what guys might hurt you and what guys you're more comfortable pitching to comes into play.

"They're solid, one through nine. They have power and patience, and at the same time, they can be aggressive early in the count. You have to keep them off balance, make them mis-hit the ball and hope it goes at someone."

The Yankees have a similar reverence for the Angels, who split the 10-game season series with New York this season.

Leadoff batter Chone Figgins has a .327 career average against the Yankees, Vladimir Guerrero has hit .320 with 10 homers and 51 RBIs against them, and Howie Kendrick is a career .426 (46 for 108) hitter against them.

The Angels' lineup also features young slugger Kendry Morales, who hit .306 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs, the patient and productive former Yankee Bobby Abreu, who hit .293 with 103 RBIs, Hunter, who had 22 homers and 90 RBIs, Juan Rivera, who had 25 homers and 88 RBIs, and speedy Erick Aybar, who hit .312.

"They're pesky in the front and have power in the middle," said A.J. Burnett, New York's Game 2 starter. "And it just extends through their lineup. They have a great heads-up manager who plays both American and National League ball. And he never panics in the dugout, so you know they're always calm."

The key for both teams will be keeping the table-setters off base in front of the sluggers who are paid to clean up. Starting pitching, as always, will be huge, as will defense and the effectiveness of each bullpen.

"We think we're one of the best teams in baseball, and they're obviously one of the best teams in baseball," Saunders said. "It's going to be a great matchup with a lot of intense moments. It's going to be a lot of fun. Good times."

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mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

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