“We don’t believe in curses,” Youkilis said. “We never believed there was a curse in Boston. I don’t believe there’s a hex (on the Angels). It’s just two teams going at it.”
Yet even Boston’s slugging first baseman realizes it’s tough to find an adequate explanation for Boston’s playoff domination of the Angels, which began nearly a quarter-century ago with one of the worst collapses in postseason history.
When the clubs open their third consecutive first-round series Thursday night, AL West champion Los Angeles will take another crack at wild card-winning Boston, the once-bedeviled franchise that has ended three of the Angels’ past five seasons.
And it hasn’t even been close. The Angels have lost 12 of their last 13 postseason games against the Red Sox, including 9 of 10 over the last three series. Los Angeles hasn’t even led Boston for eight total innings of those last 10 games, and the Angels’ only win was a 12-inning nail-biter last season, snapping an 11-game losing streak in the matchup.
“Last year was last year,” snapped a smiling Torii Hunter(notes), the Angels’ leader and most gregarious player. “I don’t want to talk about last year. You can if you want, but I don’t give a damn about last year.”
Player turnover and year-to-year injuries make most comparisons silly, yet as recently as three weeks ago, Hunter chastised his teammates for playing nervously against the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Los Angeles won the season series 5-4, but six of those games were played in the season’s first six weeks, before either team really got itself together for another playoff run.
Angels manager Mike Scioscia takes pleasure in debunking baseball conspiracy theories, and he doesn’t believe there’s anything special about the stark statistics his club has compiled against Boston.
“I don’t think there is anything, really, to go back and analyze,” said Scioscia, the first manager to take a team to the playoffs six times in his first 10 seasons. “It’s a whole new set of variables, a whole new set of matchups. We know what the challenge is.”
The clubs first met in the 1986 AL championship series—“before a lot of our guys were born,” Scioscia says. After the Angels got within one strike of a series-clinching victory in Game 5, Dave Henderson hit his long-remembered go-ahead homer in the ninth inning as Boston erased the Angels’ three-run lead.
In 2004, the Sox sent the Angels packing in a first-round sweep on the way to their World Series title. John Lackey(notes) didn’t pitch in that series, but the Angels’ starter on Thursday night doesn’t believe anything took root in his club that year.
“It’s a definite challenge, but it’s a new year,” Lackey said. “I’m one of the few guys that have been here for all of them. It was different pretty much every year.”
Boston is responsible for a large chunk of Los Angeles’ postseason woes, but not everything. The Angels have lost six straight home postseason games—all to teams named after hosiery, including three losses to the White Sox in the 2005 ALCS—and nine of 11 since winning the 2002 World Series.
When Jon Lester(notes) takes the mound against Lackey in Game 1, he’ll be thinking more about the Angels’ surging lineup than their history. Los Angeles set franchise records for runs (883), RBIs (841) and hits (1,604) with a lineup that featured nine .300 hitters as recently as mid-August.
The Angels haven’t been immune to slumps, but Scioscia thinks his lineup is deeper than it’s ever been. After managing just eight runs in their three losses to Boston last season, the Angels believe they’re better equipped to come through in October.
Yet the Red Sox hold the knowledge they can beat the Angels in the postseason—something that matters to Lester, if not to Youkilis.
“I guess it’s just an added confidence” that Boston has against the Angels, Lester said. “I wouldn’t say that in an arrogant way, but we know we’ve played this team well, and they play us tough. It’s just that comfort level of knowing if we get in a bind, we’ve done it before. You just draw from that past experience.”
Aside from the looming recent history, the clubs are remarkably well matched. Both feature solid four-man starting rotations and deep lineups featuring both power and patience at the plate, allowing both managers to be creative with lineups and pinch-hitting opportunities.
Speed on the bases also is expected to pop into prominence during the series. Both clubs are among the AL’s most active on the basepaths, with Jacoby Ellsbury’s(notes) 70 stolen bases for Boston contrasting with the Angels’ 148 team steals.
Yet in close games, a key difference could show through. The Red Sox should be able to rely on what’s been a superior bullpen this season, with Billy Wagner(notes) and Daniel Bard(notes) setting up closer Jonathan Papelbon(notes). The Red Sox also can count on Takashi Saito(notes), Ramon Ramirez and Hideki Okajima(notes).
The Angels’ bullpen has been springing leaks since April, and not every hole is yet filled.
Although new closer Brian Fuentes(notes) led the majors with 48 saves, he’s been roundly booed more than once at Angel Stadium for occasional inconsistencies. His setup men are a mixed bag, some young (rookie Kevin Jepsen(notes)), some sore (Jason Bulger(notes), who had a cortisone shot Sunday) and some pitching better than anybody expected (39-year-old veteran Darren Oliver(notes) and 11-game winner Matt Palmer(notes)).
Although the Angels won 97 games and its third straight division title, they’re still three tough-to-get victories away from really having something to celebrate.
“Whatever you do during the season doesn’t matter in the postseason,” Hunter said. “This is my sixth postseason, and I know that. … It’s not about history or division titles or who has more rings. It’s about who wants it more.”