Angels want to change history vs. Red Sox
BOSTON -- John Lackey was practically foaming at the mouth. Torii Hunter sat in his chair, with a stunned look on his face, arms crossed, needing a moment. The Angels had just lost to the Red Sox in last year's American League Division Series and had to answer the same question again: Why does Boston so handily defeat you once it's October?
"When we got on that plane ride going home," says starter Joe Saunders, "we were still in shock that we weren't going to the field."
For the Angels, it was a confounding, frustrating position to be in, but a familiar one. The loss dropped them to 1-12 in 13 playoff games against Boston since 1986. Last year's defeat was particularly stunning to the Angels, because they were a 100-win team filled with hope and confidence. They had Mark Teixeira, Francisco Rodriguez, Hunter and a host of reasons why it was their time. It seemed they had all the ingredients for a World Series run -- pitching, speed and defense -- which is why several players, especially Lackey, were livid after losing to Boston.
"We lost to a team that is not better than us," Lackey said at the time.
That may be true -- the Angels were 8-1 against Boston in the regular season and had the most wins in the majors -- but the Red Sox played better when it counted, scoring the winning or insurance run in the final inning of each win. That included Jed Lowrie's game-winning single in the ninth inning of Game 4, which sent the Angels back to Los Angeles, and left third baseman Chone Figgins frozen and unable to move on the field, as the Red Sox celebrated.
"We've come to realize that if we want to make it far, the road goes through Boston," Saunders adds.
Saunders and his teammates will have a warm-up for October starting Tuesday night at Fenway, when they play the first of three games. Daisuke Matsuzaka will be starting for the first time since June 19, while Anaheim will counter with Lackey, the team's ace who is a free agent after this year.
Red Sox first baseman Casey Kotchman wasn't with the Angels last fall -- he'd been traded to Atlanta last year in a deadline deal that sent Teixeira to Anaheim -- but Kotchman had spent his entire career with the organization. He was there in 2004 and 2007 when the Red Sox swept the Angels, both times moving on to win the World Series.
Kotchman was sitting on his couch last October, watching the familiar outcome.
"It was kind of status quo," he says. "We would play here in September, and when October rolled around, who knows what happened? There was probably no rhyme or reason -- you just get into a series and anything can happen."
There are myriad reasons why the Angels lost, but one of them was the offense. Second baseman Howie Kendrick hit just .117 in the series, while shortstop Erick Aybar managed a .111 on-base percentage in four games. The Angels hit .200 with runners in scoring position and stranded 43 runners on base.
"I think it was a number of factors," manager Mike Scioscia says. "From really being outplayed, to not being at the level we needed to be. I don't think it's any mystery when teams beat you in the playoffs."
While the team couldn't retain Teixeira this offseason, its offense has improved significantly. Kendry Morales, Teixeira's replacement, leads the AL with 49 RBIs in the second half, and his 15 homers since the All-Star break are tied with Carlos Pena for the most in the AL. Overall, the Angels' offense in the second half has been one of the best in the league, ranking second in average, runs per game, on-base percentage and RBIs.
The Angels have the second-best record in the big leagues in spite of major pitching issues. They've had 14 different starting pitchers this season -- tied for the most in the majors -- including 12 rookies. Nick Adenhart was one of those rookies, and his death in a car crash in early April inflicted deep grief. Somehow, Scioscia and pitching coach Mike Butcher found a way to help the players through their pain while still getting production out of them, including Jered Weaver, who had planned on moving in with Adenhart just days after the crash. Weaver is 15-6 with a 3.85 ERA this year.
The Angels have added starter Scott Kazmir and their bullpen has rebounded from a horrible early start and has been one of the best in the second half.
"We have Kazmir now, and Lackey looks healthy," says outfielder Juan Rivera. "We have as good a pitching staff as we've had when I've been here."
All of that, it seems, will make for a good series at Fenway this week, but as the past has shown, it won't mean anything come October.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com and ESPNBoston.com You can reach her at email@example.com or at twitter.com/amyknelson.