The 2009 Los Angeles Angels were the product of a proud organization that had built an excellent reputation in the ‘00s for good, fundamental baseball. The arrival of Mike Scioscia as manager in 2000 effected the change and they won the World Series in 2002. The Angels continued to be a solid contender, winning four more AL West titles and reaching the American League Championship Series in 2005. But they had one big bugaboo and it was the Boston Red Sox.
Three of the previous four times the Angels had been in the playoffs resulted in elimination by the Red Sox in the Division Series. The losses to eventual Red Sox championship teams in 2004 and 2007 weren’t entirely surprising, although losing both in sweeps was disappointing.
But the loss in 2008 rankled in SoCal. The Angels had been the best record in baseball, they had a made a big trade deadline pickup of first baseman Mark Teixeira, and a World Series run was expected—not just by the Angels, but by baseball observers. Instead, they lost to the Red Sox in four games in the Division Series.
Even though Teixeira left for the New York Yankees in free agency, the Angels still had the talent, they still had their manager and they still had their identity. And by October, they would get some revenge.
The 2009 edition of the Angels was offense-oriented. They were second in the league in runs scored and well-balanced between their staple of moving runners and hitting for power. First baseman Kendry Morales hit 34 home runs and had 108 RBIs. Third baseman Chone Figgins was a great table-setter, with a .395 OBP and pesky shortstop Erick Aybar was at .353.
Veteran rightfielder Bobby Abreu had a .390 OBP, while Juan Rivera hit 25 home runs. The centerfielder, respected 33-year-old Tori Hunter did it all—a .366 OBP, .508 slugging and great defensive work. And the young catcher, 27-year-old Mike Napoli, posted numbers of .350/.492. There were no weaknesses in this lineup.
The pitching was a little subpar—ninth in the AL in ERA—but it had two solid starters in Jered Weaver (16-8 3.75 ERA) and John Lackey, at 11-8 and 3.83. The closer was Brian Fuentes, who could cause some anxious moments, but Scioscia’s managing skills squeezed the most out of the bullpen.
It took some time for the 2009 Los Angeles Angels to find their stride. They lost 11 of their first 17 and didn’t reach .500 until May 8. The good news was that a packed AL West only had them a game and a half out on that date. Los Angeles got to a tie for first place on June 23, the outright lead four days later, and July 11 marked the date that they took hold of first and never let go.
A 19-7 record in the month of July set the stage for a gradual pulling away from the Texas Rangers—a team laying the foundation for consecutive pennants in 2010-11. The Angels finished 97-65 and comfortably won the AL West by ten games.
The playoffs were set to begin and a familiar foe was waiting—the Boston Red Sox were the opponent in the Division Series, with the best-of-five affair beginning with two games out west.
Lackey got the ball for Game 1, facing Jon Lester. This matchup had doomed the Angels in 2008, when Boston won both Lester-Lackey games, not necessarily through the fault of the Angel pitcher (who ironically would sign with Boston the following winter).
This year was going to be different. After four scoreless innings, the Angels got two aboard in the fifth and then Hunter hit a three-run jack. Los Angeles won 5-0.
Game 2 followed a similar pattern, as Weaver squared off with Josh Beckett. Both pitchers were sharp and it was 1-1 after six innings. In the seventh, veteran DH Vlad Guerrero led off with a walk and was pinch-ran for by Howie Kendrick, who promptly stole second. With two outs, utility man Macier Itzuris singled in the lead run. After Napoli was hit by a pitch, Aybar cleared the bases with a triple and the Angels won 4-1.
Sunday afternoon saw the October sunshine splash over Fenway Park, and for seven innings it looked this series would continue on, as Boston led 5-2. Then the Angels started coming.
Abreu doubled and Guerrero drew a walk. With two outs, Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon surrendered a two-run single to Rivera. A pinch-runner, Reggie Willits was summoned. With Papelbon’s location erratic, Willits bailed him out and got picked off first.
The baserunning miscue by Willits was not without precedent. In the decisive Game 4 the year before at Fenway Park, Willits was on third base with one out in the ninth inning of a 2-2 game. He got hung up in a rundown and was unable to get back to third. Now, he seemed to have rescued the Red Sox from themselves, especially when Boston picked up a run in the bottom of the inning.
Papelbon got the first two batters out in the ninth. Then Aybar singled and Figgins walked. The rally was back to where it all began an inning earlier—with Abreu and Guerrero. Abreu lifted a double off the Green Monster. One run came in and runners were on second and third.
Vlad Guerrero had been one of the truly great players in Los Angeles Angels history, a great all-around hitter and a rightfielder whose arm was feared. He had been clutch, nearly staving off elimination for Los Angeles in 2004 when he hit a game-tying grand slam in the clinching game against these same Red Sox. But time was catching up to him, and while he was a regular, he wasn’t the same player.
But Vlad Guerrero was still clutch and he lined a single to centerfield that scored both runs. Los Angeles led 7-6 and they closed the ninth without incident. At long last, the Angels had vanquished the Red Sox.
The season would end in the ALCS against the Yankees. The Angels made some uncharacteristic mistakes in a heart-breaking Game 2 loss and in the end, New York ace C.C. Sabathia, who won two games, was too much. The Yankees had won 103 games and would win the World Series—they were clearly the best team in baseball, so losing to them in a good six-game ALCS was no shame and in no way diminished what this team had earned in finally ousting Boston.
What was surprising though, is that five years since that Sunday afternoon in Fenway Park when demons were exorcised, the Los Angeles Angels have not been back to the postseason. Some big free-agent acquisitions, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, didn’t go as planned, at least in the early going.
Today, in the late summer of 2014, it appears another Angels team is making a run to the postseason. It’s a welcome return to prominence for Scioscia and a reminder that it wasn’t that long ago, this franchise was a model of excellence.