After a heartbreaking ALCS loss in 1986, the Angels had slipped to irrelevance over the next two seasons, going 75-87 each time. The 1989 California Angels turned into a surprise contender and only the high quality of the AL West and the more stringent postseason standards of the era kept them out of the playoffs.
Pitching was the driving force behind the success. Bert Blyleven made 33 starts, won 17 games and posted a 2.73 ERA. Blyleven finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in the last really good year of his Hall of Fame career.
Blyleven anchored a rotation that got very good years from Kirk McCaskill and Chuck Finley, who combined to start 61 games, deliver 31 wins and finish with sub-3.00 ERAs themselves. Jim Abbott, the one-handed wonder, went to the post 29 times and was a respectable 12-12 with a 3.92 ERA.
The only starter who wasn’t effective was Mike Witt, whose fall from grace over the last couple years had tracked with the team overall. But even with a 4.54 ERA, when your rotation’s weakest link can make 33 starts, it’s a sign your staff is in pretty good shape.
Bryan Harvey saved 25 games and Willie Fraser had a good year in setup. The Angels also squeezed solid seasons out of a pair of 37-year-olds, right-handed Greg Minton and lefty Bob McClure. The quality of the bullpen, combined with the rotation, gave California the second-best staff ERA in the American League.
But the offense was a problem. Even though the Angels led the league in home runs, that was about all they did well. The lineup ranked in the lower parts of the 14-team AL in batting average, walks, doubles and stolen bases. It’s tough to build an offense around solo home runs.
Chili Davis led the team with 22 long balls and had a respectable stat line of .340 on-base percentage/.436 slugging percentage. Wally Joyner popped 16 homers at first base, veteran catcher Lance Parrish hit 17 more and DH Brian Downing had a .354 OBP. But there wasn’t much else on an offense that ranked just 12th in the American League in runs scored.
The AL West had a heavy favorite in the Oakland A’s, who were fresh off a run to the American League pennant in 1988. But with their star left fielder, Jose Canseco, out for the first half of the season, the door was at least a little bit ajar for anyone else who wanted to get in the mix.
There was no evidence in the early weeks that the Angels would be that team. They split their first 18 games, a stretch that included five losses in seven games to the A’s. On the final weekend of April, the Toronto Blue Jays came to town.
The Blue Jays would end up winning the AL East, but they were off to a terrible start. The Angels swept this series, then turned around and swept the return trip to Toronto. It was all part of a dominating run through the league’s weaker division. By Memorial Day, the Angels were 31-16.
Baseball’s alignment of this era had each league split into just two divisions, an East and a West. What’s more, only the first-place finisher could advance to the postseason. California’s excellent start still left them a game back of Oakland, who rolled on without Canseco. Kansas City was in the AL West prior to the creation of the Central Division in 1994 and the Royals were 3 ½ off the pace. Texas was 4 ½ out.
All four of these teams would have had a solid lead in the AL East, where a 23-22 start by the Baltimore Orioles was setting the pace.
And it was the Orioles who came to Anaheim on June 22, with the Angels in the midst of some early summer doldrums. They came out of the Memorial Day holiday and were swept at Kansas City and Texas, while revived Toronto came west and got a revenge sweep. California was now 3 ½ games out as they faced Baltimore in a four-game set.
The struggles continued in a 6-5 loss to open the series on Thursday night. Witt took the ball on Friday night and stopped the bleeding. Aided by home runs from veteran outfielder Claudell Washington and third baseman Jack Howell, Witt won 5-1.
Howell kept hitting with three more hits on Saturday night. Joyner and centerfielder Devon White also had three hits. Downing drove in three runs and California won 8-3. Joyner had another big day on Sunday, with two hits that included a home run. The Angels jumped out to an early 7-1 lead in the finale, hung on to win 7-6 and the strong weekend had them back on track.
By the All-Star break, California was 52-33 and had the best record in all of baseball. They were a game and a half up on Oakland, up 3 ½ on Kansas City and 5 ½ on Texas. Even with the low expectations of the preseason and the high bar being set in the AL West, a return to October was now a real possibility.
Joyner had a magical weekend at home against Detroit coming out of the break. In a four-game series, he had the walkoff RBI three different times—once with a single, another time with a home run, and another by getting plunked with the bases loaded. California won the other game in 16 innings.
The Angels couldn’t get separation from the A’s though and on July 24, the two teams were tied for first. California went north to Oakland for the first of two big head-to-matchups the contenders would have.
Chili Davis and Howell each homered in Monday night’s opener to key a 5-4 win. They came back on Tuesday and homered again, giving Finley all the support he needed in a 4-0 win. Even though Witt got knocked around in a 9-5 loss on Wednesday, the Angels had taken the series and held a one-game lead.
But in a long baseball season, August can be the cruelest month. So it was for the ’89 Angels. In the heat of the dog days, California lost two of three when Oakland made the return trip south. The Angels dropped three of four at home to Kansas City. They went east and lost three of four to mediocre Boston and were swept by what was a bad Yankees team.
On Labor Day, California’s 78-58 record was excellent by most standards. Unfortunately, one of those standards was not this year’s AL West. The Angels had slipped to third place, 4 ½ back of the A’s, and the Royals nestled in between.
Over the next two weeks, California won 8 of 13 while Oakland stumbled a bit. It was enough to close the gap to 2 ½ games, move into a tie for second with Kansas City and give some hope for a closing push.
The Angels went up to Minnesota and swept the Twins. It kept the pressure on, but the A’s revived themselves and kept the challengers at arm’s length. Over a four-game weekend stretch at lowly Cleveland, California finally buckled. They lost all four games. Any hope of running down Oakland came to an end.
A final record of 91-71 left the Angels in third place. It was still a record that would have won the AL East by two games. It was still a record that was the sixth-best in all of baseball and it was a record that would have easily made these Angels a playoff team by the standards of today. But the A’s of the Bash Brothers era were tough to keep up with.
What’s more disappointing is that this proved to be a one-year wonder. With Blyleven aging, Witt in a surprise career descent at age 28 and the offense a liability in either case, California slipped back to mediocrity as fast as they had risen. Their next winning season didn’t come until 1995, a year they lost a tiebreaker game for the division title. And their next postseason appearance didn’t take place until the magical championship year of 2002.
One team was one of baseball’s history-laden franchises, the other an expansion team. But they were united a shared heritage of heartbreak. The Boston Red Sox and California Angels met at the 1986 ALCS and it was inevitable that somebody’s fan base would be crushed when it was over. In a rare turnabout for the pre-2004 era it was the Red Sox who snatched victory from the jaws of defeat rather than the other way around.
Boston and California had each pulled away from their respective divisions and made September anticlimactic. Homefield advantage was determined on a rotation basis rather than merit, so there was really nothing to do for the last few weeks of the regular season than point to this showdown. You can read about the paths each team took to its division title at the links below. This article focuses exclusively on the games of the 1986 ALCS.
The series opened on a Tuesday night in Fenway Park, and it was a matchup of aces. Roger Clemens won by the Cy Young and MVP for the Red Sox, while the Angels’ Mike Witt finished third in the Cy Young voting. And to the surprise of the Fenway crowd, this was Witt’s night.
In the top of the second, Clemens issued a pair of walks and then in rapid succession, Ruppert Jones singled, Wally Joyner doubled and Brian Downing singled to left. It was suddenly 4-0. In the top of the third, California had some more two-out magic. After an error by Boston shortstop Spike Owen, the Angels got hits from Bob Boone and Gary Pettis and the lead was 5-zip.
Witt was in command and not until the sixth did the Red Sox get on the board. Owen drew a walk, Wade Boggs beat out an infield hit and Marty Barrett took a single the other way to right. But it was not the sign of an impending comeback. Witt finished off a complete-game five-hitter with no further damage. Clemens worked into the eighth, sparing the bullpen, but the Angels tacked on another couple runs in the 8-1 win.
Lefty Bruce Hurst got the ball for the Red Sox on Wednesday night who faced a virtual must-win on their homefield. Kirk McCaskill was on the mound for the Angels. This time it was Boston who came out on the attack. In the bottom of the first, Boggs lead off with a triple and Barrett doubled him home. In the bottom of the second, Rich Gedman and Owen singled and Boggs beat out another infield hit.
The bases were loaded with one out. Barrett popped a single to left and it was 2-0. McCaskill escaped further damage by getting Bill Buckner to bounce back to the mound and start a double play. California took advantage by tying the game up in the middle innings. Downing and Doug DeCinces opened with singles. A Boggs error and an infield hit by Dick Schofield brought in a run. One inning later Joyner homered to make it 2-2.
Boston got the lead back in the bottom of the frame when Buckner singled, veteran DH Don Baylor worked out a two-out walk and Dwight Evans doubled in the lead run. In the seventh, the Red Sox got real separation. After an error by second baseman Bobby Grich, Jim Rice singled and Baylor walked. Another error, this one by DeCinces at third, made the game 4-2.
McCaskill looked ready to get out of it when he got a ground ball to second that looked like a double play. California got the out at second, but Schofield’s throw to first went awry and two more runs scored. McCaskill was done and so were the Angels. Hurt gave up eleven hits, but finished the game because Joyner’s home run was the only one that went for extra bases. The Red Sox tacked on three runs in the eighth for good measure, keyed by Rice’s two-run homer. The final was 9-2.
An anticipated series had opened with two blowouts. At the very least, the Joyner routs had gone both ways, so there was room for excitement to build. And the three games out in Anaheim would be a building crescendo of drama.
Oil Can Boyd, the colorful Red Sox righthander got the Game 3 start and faced off with John Candelaria, a veteran of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1979 World Series champions. Boston got an early run in the second, but a baserunning error prevented a bigger inning. Rice led off with a walk and Baylor singled, but the lefthanded Candelaria picked Baylor off of first. Subsequent singles by Evans and Gedman only resulted in one run.
The Angels threatened in the fourth, putting runners on first and second with two outs. DeCinces then beat out an infield single to first, but Joyner tried to score all the way from second. Buckner wasn’t buying and threw him out at the plate. The Red Sox blew a bigger opportunity in the top of the fifth, failing to score after getting men on second and third with none out. Owens grounded to first, but failed to score the run, Barrett popped out and Candelaria escaped.
California finally tied it up in the sixth. Joyner drew a walk and moved up on a groundball. Hurst faced an old Boston nemesis, DH Reggie Jackson, who singled to tie the game. In the seventh, the Angels’ contact hitters displayed some muscle. The diminutive Schofield homered with two outs. After Bob Boone singled, speedy Gary Pettis also went deep. The Angels suddenly had a 4-1 lead.
The Red Sox made a move in the eighth when Barrett led off with a single. Rice drilled out a two-out double that spelled the end of the night for Candelaria. California manager Gene Mauch went to his closer, Donnie Moore, who promptly balked in a run. After issuing a walk to Evans, Moore surrendered a base hit to Rich Gedman that cut the lead to 4-3.
With two runners still on base Moore got the game’s biggest out, when Tony Armas flied out to center. California got an insurance run in the eighth when Jackson drew a walk, went all the way to third on a Boggs error and scored on a sac fly by Jones. Moore closed the ninth without incident and the 5-3 win put the Angels halfway to a pennant.
The significant downside that came out of the game for California was that Joyner would no longer be available. The first baseman and Rookie of the Year suffered a staph infection after Game 2 and while he tried to play in Game 3, it wasn’t working and he was out for the remainder of the ALCS.
The Red Sox turned to Clemens on three days’ rest to even the series. The Angels, in the stronger positon for the series, and having a future Hall of Famer in veteran Don Sutton available, kept on their normal rotation.
Clemens and Sutton traded zeroes for three innings in the prime-time game. In the top of the fourth, Boston missed a chance. Boggs led off with a double and Barrett bunted him up. But a Buckner fly ball wasn’t deep enough and Sutton escaped. The Red Sox got another chance in the sixth and cashed in. Armas started it with a single, Owen dropped down a sac bunt and with two outs, Buckner ultimately redeemed himself with an RBI single.
Sutton left after seven excellent innings and Vern Ruhle came on. But the bottom of the order was causing problems. Owen singled, took second on a groundball out and eventually scored on a base hit from Barrett. Chuck Finley came out of the Angel bullpen, but was let down by a pair of errors that resulted in Barrett scoring. Mauch, emptying his bullpen, to try and keep it close, went to Doug Corbett, who struck with Baylor with two outs and two on.
I still recall this Saturday night. A high school sophomore who was playing poker in a room separate from the TV set, I was walking back and forth and confidently reported to the other teenage card players that “the series is tied.” It would be a premature call.
Clemens, after a magnificent night, gave up a leadoff home run to DeCinces. With one out, consecutive singles from veteran pinch-hitter George Hendrick and Schofield, got the Red Sox ace out of the game. Manager John McNamara went to closer Calvin Schiraldi. Pettis greeted him with an RBI double that made it 3-2 and put runners on second and third.
After an intentional walk to Jones, Schiraldi came up with a big strikeout of Grich that looked ready to save the game. But with two outs, the closer plunked Downing. The score was tied and Reggie was coming to the plate. If nothing else, Schiraldi didn’t let the longtime New England nemesis deliver the final blow and Jackson grounded to second. But it merely delayed what looked like a fatal loss.
Schiraldi was still on the eleventh, as the Boston offense could get nothing going in extra innings. Angels’ catcher Jerry Narron singled and was bunted up by Pettis. Grich redeemed himself with a line drive single to left that won the game and put California on the brink of a pennant. With Witt ready to go on full rest for Sunday afternoon, and Clemens having been beaten twice, there seemed little hope left for the Red Sox.
Boston still came out strong, with Rice singling in the second inning and Gedman hitting a two-out home run. Hurst, on short rest, escaped jam in the innings’ bottom half pitching around a leadoff double by DeCinces and keeping the score 2-0. But the Boston bats fell silent, as Witt began cruising through the lineup. And California cut the lead in half on a solo shot by Boone in the third. They took the lead in the sixth when DeCinces hit a two-out double and Grich homered to make it 3-2.
The Angels appeared to all but sew up the pennant in the seventh. Hendrick legged out an infield hit. After a sac bunt by Boone, Pettis drew a walk and a double by Rob Wilfong put California up 5-2. There were just six outs left and Witt worked the eighth without incident.
Witt took the mound to open the ninth and quickly got into trouble. Buckner singled to center. After Rice struck out, Baylor homered and now it was 5-4. Witt recovered to get Evans to pop out and Angels Stadium was ready to celebrate. With the lefthanded hitting Gedman at the plate, Mauch decided to engage in situational managing and brought in lefty Gary Lucas.
This managerial decision has been the subject of considerable controversy, pulling your ace with one out to go and no one in base. In Mauch’s defense, Gedman had homered earlier and another one would tie the game. And the fact Baylor had already homered this inning suggested Witt was just hanging on. But when Lucas hit Gedman with a pitch, it seemed a useless change.
Mauch summoned the righthanded Moore to face Boston’s Dave Henderson. The count ran 2-2. One strike from elimination, Henderson homered on the next pitch. The Red Sox had a stunning 6-5 lead.
This is the moment when most recollection of the 1986 ALCS basically shuts down and the eventual Boston triumph seemed inevitable. It didn’t actually play out that way on late Sunday afternoon. The Angels rallied against the Red Sox bullpen in the ninth.
Boone led off with a single. Ruppert Jones came in to pinch run for the aging catcher and was bunted to second. McNamara played his own righty-lefty game and removed Bob Stanley, opting for lefty Joe Sambito to face Wilfong. It didn’t work. Wilfong singled and the game was tied. McNamara went back to the pen, going for righty Steve Crawford. He allowed a single to Schofield, sending Wilfong to third with the winning run and only one out. Downing was intentionally walked. DeCinces came to the plate and got a fly ball to right…but not deep enough to score. The agony of the Angels only increased when Grich hit a line drive, but right back at Crawford. The Red Sox had escaped the ninth inning not once, but twice and it was 6-6 as Sunday afternoon wore on.
Boston missed a chance in the tenth, as Rice grounded into a double play with runners on the corners and one out. Moore was still in the game in the top of the eleventh. Baylor was hit by a pitch and Evans singled. Gedman dropped down a bunt and beat it out. The bases were loaded with none out. Henderson—who else—hit a sac fly that made it 7-6. Even though no further damage resulted, this one was finally over. Schiraldi came in for the Red Sox and closed it out.
The Red Sox were flying high as the teams went back east, with a day off on Monday and resuming play on Tuesday. The Angels had to try and reclaim some momentum and they got right at it against Boyd.
After Jones worked a walk, Jackson and DeCinces hit back-to-back doubles for a quick 2-0 lead. But the Red Sox countered with a soft rally. Boggs and Barrett each worked full-count walks off McCaskill. A productive groundout, a passed ball and another productive ground ball tied the game.
In the third inning, Boston leveled McCaskill. Owens and Boggs singled to lead it off. Barrett doubled and Buckner singled to make it 4-2. Barrett tried to score on a groundball to third off the bat of Rice, but was thrown out at the plate. But with runners on first and second, Baylor singled to the opposite field. In an attempt to make another play at home, Joyner’s relay throw went wild and both runs scored, while Baylor went to third. Evans smacked a single to center making it 7-2 and ending McCaskill’s night.
California tried to rally in the fourth, putting the first two men on base. Boyd reached back to strike out Boone and Pettis and there were no runs. The Red Sox added to the lead in the fifth. After Baylor was hit by a pitch, Evans and Gedman singled, setting up an RBI groundball by Henderson. Even though Boggs ultimately killed the rally with a double-play, it wouldn’t really matter. The Angels got a solo home run from Downing in the seventh and an unearned run in the ninth, but even those were sandwiched around a two-run triple by Owen. The final was 10-4 and it was all coming down to a seventh game.
The Red Sox had Clemens available for a third start, while the Angels would turn to Candelaria. Even without Witt, you had still like the pitching option for California. Candelaria had some big-game mojo from 1979 and had pitched a shutout in Game 6 of the World Series in Baltimore, a game his Pirates faced elimination in. But October 15 in Fenway wouldn’t work out quite as well.
In the bottom of the second, an error by Schofield started the rally. It was followed by a base hit from Baylor, a walk to Evans and an RBI groundout from Gedman. With two outs, Boggs slapped a two-run single and it was 3-0.
Boston missed a chance in the third, when a Baylor double keyed a second and third situation with one out. But Evans couldn’t pick up the RBI and Candelaria escaped. But the roof finally fell in on the Angels in the fourth.
A fly ball off the bat of Henderson turned into an error by Pettis and Henderson ended up on third. Owens singled in the run. After a walk and two outs, Rice came to the plate. He smashed a three-run homer sending Fenway into a frenzy and at 7-0, this American League Championship Series was all but over.
Evans tacked on another home run in the seventh and Clemens pitched seven innings of four-hit ball and left after an eighth-inning single that the Angels turned into a meaningless run. The 8-1 final sent the Red Sox to the World Series for the first time since 1975. And it would be another chapter to the Angel history of heartbreak.
Barrett was named ALCS MVP, going 11-for-30. Other good contributors were Owen, whose 9-for-21 was a boon to the lineup out of the 9-hole. Gedman had ten hits and Baylor added nine of his own. On the Angel side, Boone went 10-for-22 and had the team closed it out in Game 5, Witt would almost certainly have been named series MVP.
The most notable struggle came from McCaskill, an integral part of the California rotation all year, but who only worked nine innings combined in his two starts and gave up 13 runs. And the loss of Joyner is a big what-might-have-been for Angels fans.
This American League Championship Series was just one-third of the most incredible October baseball has ever seen. The NLCS provided similar high-stakes drama between the Mets and Astros. And the World Series has a unique place in the game’s history, as it would be Boston’s turn to connect with a heritage of heartbreak, getting to one strike of winning the World Series before a series of unfortunate events, highlighted by a famous error from Buckner, took it away.
Even amidst the ending that Red Sox fans lived with for eighteen years, Henderson still remained a hero in the area for his vital role in the amazing ALCS battle.
Gene Mauch and the California Angels parted ways after a heartbreaking loss in the 1982 American League Championship Series. The Angels promptly fell apart and by 1985 Mauch was back in the fold. He put the Angels back into contention that year and even though the 1986 California Angels again suffered October heartbreak, they first dethroned the defending World Series champions and won the AL West.
The Angels said goodbye to a legend before the season began—Hall of Fame first baseman Rod Carew, one of the great contact hitters and great gentleman of the game stepped down. What no one knew was the rookie Wally Joyner was ready for prime time and Joyner finished with 22 home runs and 100 RBI.
Other offseason changes involved strengthening the bullpen. California signed Donnie Moore and he would assume the closer’s role, with 21 saves and a 2.97 ERA. They also made minor moves for Gary Lucas and Terry Forster, each of whom contributed to what was a deep pen in 1986, with Doug Corbett and young Chuck Finley also helping out.
The ace of the staff though, was 25-year-old power righthander Mike Witt. He made 34 starts, finished with a 2.84 ERA, an 18-10 record and finished third in the Cy Young voting. Kirk McCaskill, also 25-years-old, wasn’t far behind, with 33 starts, a 17-10 record and 3.36 ERA. At the other end of the age spectrum, 41-year-old Don Sutton, with a spot already reserved for him in Cooperstown, went to the post 34 times, won 15 games and finished with a 3.74 ERA.
Even though the back end of the rotation was a liability, veteran lefty John Candelaria was still able to make sixteen starts and finish with a 2.55 ERA. And the depth of the bullpen was able to compensate.
So was the offense, which finished sixth in the American League in runs scored, but was the most prolific in its own Western Division. They did it with patience rather than power. The Angels might have been in the middle of the pack for home runs and near the bottom in doubles, but they drew walks better than any AL team.
Brian Downing, the veteran leftfielder, drew 95 walks. He also had some pop, hitting 20 home runs. Doug DeCinces, the 35-year-old third baseman was the other steady power hitter, with 26 home runs. But with the great Reggie Jackson in decline, hitting only 18 home runs at age 40, the Angels had to be resourceful.
And they were, starting with Reggie himself, who still had an excellent .379 on-base percentage. Speedy centerfielder Gary Pettis stole 50 bases. Ruppert Jones only hit .229, but he used his ability to get walks to turn that into a .339 OBP. Bobby Grich and Rick Burleson, veteran middle infielders that came off the bench, each finished with OBP’s over .350. Dick Schofield, the kid shortstop who got more of the playing time, was a sterling defender.
California was still slow out of the gate, but the weakness of the AL West was a big help. They were able to start 12-7 against divisional foes, and then took two of three from defending AL East champ Toronto, but in the ensuing twenty-one games against AL East teams, the Angels won only seven.
By the time Memorial Day arrived they were 21-22, though only a half-game behind Texasand five AL West rivals were stacked within 2 ½ games of each other. One of those teams was the Kansas City Royals, who had won this division six times the previous ten years, including catching the Angels down the stretch in 1985 and ultimately winning the World Series. If California fans were paranoid about a blue-and-white car in the rearview mirror, you couldn’t blame them.
The early part of June got worse, and after getting crushed 10-2 by the Royals to open a home series, the Angels were 4 ½ games out. They split a pair of 6-5 games over the weekend to stop the bleeding. The first-place Rangers came to town for a three-game set starting on June 16 and the AL West race would not be the same when it was over.
McCaskill took the mound on Monday night to face veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough. McCaskill was brilliant, but trailing 1-0 in the ninth, it looked like California would waste his outing. Then they got a break. Texas leftfielder Gary Ward made an error on a line drive off the bat of Jack Howell and Howell ended up on third. Joyner’s base hit tied the game and a passed ball put him in scoring position.
After DeCinces struck out and Reggie was intentionally walked, George Hendrick, a power righthanded bat off the bench was at the plate. Hough struck him out, but the knuckler danced away. Joyner, running hard all the way, scored from second on the strikeout and California had an improbable 2-1 win.
The Angels kept the momentum and the pitching going. Witt scattered nine hits in a complete-game shutout on Tuesday, while DeCinces three-run blast in the fifth was the offensive key in a 4-0 win. In the finale, California attacked quickly, with three singles and two walks in the first inning and Rob Wilfong delivering a clutch two-out/two-run single. Sutton made it three straight complete games with a three-hitter. The final was 5-1.
After taking two of three in Kansas City, California made a return trip to Texas. This time it was the offense’s turn to unload and they did just that, with 25 runs in three games, sweeping another series. The Angels led the division by a game on June 25, and even though a sluggish 4-5 stretch briefly knocked them back to second, they responded by sweeping a series in Milwaukee and reclaiming first place on July 7. They would never relinquish it.
That’s what we know today. In the moment, the AL West race was still hot, with California up 1 ½ games on Texas at the All-Star break. And even though Kansas City was flailing at 40-48, 8 ½ games out, no one was going to write them off. And the Angels had to open the second half against AL East teams.
It didn’t go well, with six losses in ten games, but the Rangers were even worse and California expanded their lead to three games. A ten-game road trip against division rivals produced .500 ball and knocked the lead back down to a game and a half.
The decisive push began with a ten-game homestand against weak teams in Seattle, Minnesota and Oakland. The Angels won eight times. Then they beat Detroit four straight, with the last game capped off by an astonishing eight-run rally in the ninth inning. Even more unlikely was that the diminutive Schofield won it with a two-out grand slam off Tiger closer Willie Hernandez, just two years removed from a Cy Young Award.
The 13-12 win came on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and the Angels were in control with a 5 ½ game lead on Texas and Kansas City having finally fallen by the wayside for good.
Baseball fans could look at the schedule and see that the Angels and Rangers would play seven times in the final ten games. California made sure those games would be largely irrelevant. They swept Kansas City, including an 18-3 shellacking and the lead went soaring to ten games by the time the head-to-head matchups began on the second-to-last Friday of the year. The Angels only needed one more win to clinch.
They didn’t waste team. After trailing 2-0 in the sixth inning, the offense exploded for four runs in the sixth and four more in the seventh. Downing homered twice and drove in five runs. The final was 8-3 and the champagne could flow in Anaheim.
California went on to the ALCS to face Boston. After taking three of the first four games and then leading 5-2 in the ninth inning of Game 5, one of the game’s great collapses occurred. A pair of two-run homers gave the Red Sox the lead. The Angels quickly tied it up and had the bases loaded with one out and the chance to win the pennant anyway. The missed that chance, lost the game and lost the final two in Fenway.
It was a devastating defeat, but shouldn’t take away from what the 1986 California Angels did, in winning 92 games and pulling away from the AL West in September.
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.