Angels get squeezed out of playoffs

Gordon Edes
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – If Mike Scioscia's gamble had worked, Boston Red Sox owners John W. Henry and Tom Werner, looking like a couple of schoolboys who had broken curfew and didn't care if the party went on all night long, would not have been romping around the bases in an empty Fenway Park in madcap celebration of another intoxicating October night.

If Mike Scioscia's gamble had worked, a Red Sox newcomer named Jason (I'm Not Manny) Bay, who never knew anything but losing in Pittsburgh, and a kid shortstop named Jed Lowrie, who began his summer in the minor league outpost of Pawtucket, would not have needed the blue goggles that keep the champagne sting out of a winner's eyes. Bay, the man who scored the winning run in Boston's deciding 3-2 victory Monday over the Los Angeles Angels, and Lowrie, the man who drove him in with a two-out single in the bottom of the ninth, suddenly the toast of a town unacquainted with either back in March, when this all began.

If Mike Scioscia's gamble had worked, the Angels, 100-game winners that over six months put up baseball's best record, would not on this night be left to wonder how it all came to such a sudden and maddening and, yes, infuriating end, once again bearing silent witness while the Red Sox carried on – and moved on in the American League playoffs.

"I'm at a loss for words," said Angels reliever Scot Shields, who gave up Bay's bloop double and Lowrie's ground-ball single that ended this division series in four games. "They're advancing, we're going home again, and that (stinks) because we know we're a damn good baseball team."

Angels manager Scioscia gambled that Erick Aybar, with a runner on third and one out in the ninth inning of a tie game, could execute a suicide squeeze on a 2-and-0 offering from Red Sox reliever Manny Delcarmen.

Instead, Aybar made a feeble pass at the pitch, and pinch-runner Reggie Willits was run down by Boston catcher Jason Varitek, who after tagging Willits had the ball dislodged from his glove when he hit the ground. But Varitek held on to it long enough to satisfy third-base umpire Tim Welke.

"Erick's a terrific bunter," Scioscia said afterward. "He feels obviously badly he didn't get it down. It was a great count for it. Delcarmen throws hard, which is a challenge, but I think it was, you know, a buntable ball. Erick just didn't get it done, and that happens."

The attempted squeeze is not inconsistent with Angels baseball, an aggressive style of play in which they run and bunt and go from first to third and generally try to pressure the opposition into mistakes. Scioscia had employed the suicide squeeze successfully here at least twice in recent memory, once by little David Eckstein back in August 2002, the season that the Angels won the World Series, and once just this past July, when catcher Jeff Mathis dropped a suicide squeeze during a six-run sixth inning.

The play is not an unknown in October, either. In Game 1 of the 2003 playoffs, Oakland catcher Ramon Hernandez beat the Red Sox in extra innings with a two-out, bases-loaded bunt, which wasn't a suicide play because the runner on third didn't break until after Hernandez put bat on ball, nor technically a squeeze, since there were two outs. Two years later, in Game 3 of the 2005 playoffs against the White Sox, Juan Uribe squeezed home an insurance run as the Red Sox were eliminated.

In 1997, Omar Vizquel of the Indians was supposed to drop a suicide squeeze against the Orioles but missed. But so did Orioles catcher Lenny Webster, and Marquis Grissom crossed the plate with the winning run in the 12th inning.

In Game 5 of the 2001 playoffs, Tony Womack of the Diamondbacks missed a suicide squeeze, and runner Midre Cummings was tagged out. Then in the same at-bat Womack delivered a game-winning hit.

Braves manager Bobby Cox in the 1991 postseason asked a pitcher, Tom Glavine, to drop a suicide squeeze on a 2-and-2 pitch with the bases loaded. That play blew up, too, as Glavine missed the sign. In 1998, Cox asked Walt Weiss to squeeze – he popped into a double play.

The play, clearly, is fraught with peril. There's a reason they call it suicide. The percentages are stacked against its success. A soft ground ball would score a runner like Willits from third. A base hit. A fly ball. A wild pitch.

A suicide squeeze, when it fails, is the kind of play that can kill a rally, can kill momentum, and on Monday night, can kill a season.

Aybar is the Angels' best bunter. He had nine sacrifices in 2008, the fifth-most in the league. He also bunted for a hit safely nine times.

But of his nine sacrifices this season, none came on a squeeze play. Scioscia was asking a 24-year-old kid, who before this season had one postseason at-bat, to execute a suicide squeeze with a season hanging in the balance. The Red Sox were not surprised that the Angels might try; one Sox strategist said afterward he hoped they would.

There would be no bunt, and no recovering for the Angels.

"I'm not going to second-guess my manager," said Angels center-fielder Torii Hunter. "He made the decision, and I'm going to stand by him. If it had worked, nobody would be saying anything."

The Angels, a long shot to stay alive after losing the first two games at home, were left to mull the might-have-beens once more. They didn't have an answer for Red Sox lefty Jon Lester, who did not allow an earned run in 14 innings over two starts, including seven innings Monday night. They could not take advantage of a Boston team they'd beaten eight of nine times in the regular season, a team hobbled in October by injuries to outfielder J.D. Drew and third baseman Mike Lowell, who was dropped from the playoff roster Monday night and thus will be ineligible to play in the ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Angels could not win in a season that might be the last hurrah for free agents-to-be Francisco Rodriguez, the record-setting closer, and Mark Teixeira, who was the big bat in the middle of the lineup the Angels hoped he would be.

"I'm just ticked off – this hurts, and it's going to stay with me a while," said Hunter, signed last winter to the biggest contract in club history (five years, $90 million) with a mandate to deliver what the Angels were unable to do in either 2004 and 2007, when they were swept out of the playoffs both years by Boston.

Hunter looked like he might make good on that design when, with the crowd of 38,785 mocking him with chants, he singled home the tying runs off rookie reliever Justin Masterson in the eighth.

"Thanks for waking up a sleeping dog," he said. "They were chanting my name. I shut 'em up quick, but I tell you what, I got shut up quickly the next inning, walking off the field."

"I know we could have played better," Hunter said after what surely ranks as his biggest disappointment in baseball, eclipsing the losses that didn't carry quite the same sting in Minnesota, where no one expected the Twins to win, as opposed to in Anaheim, where owner Arte Moreno will watch with gritted teeth as the Dodgers play on in the National League playoffs up the freeway in L.A.

"Now we go home and worry about next year, sitting on the couch once more figuring out what the hell we're going to do."

Hunter's frustration was shared by Angels ace John Lackey, who told reporters he felt like hurling someone through a wall.

Garret Anderson is the longest-tenured member of the Angels, having just finished his 14th season with the club. It is an open question whether the team will pick up the option it holds on the 36-year-old Anderson for next season. That's an issue, he said, that can wait for another day.

"It's hard to go home," he said. "Unless you're on this side and out there playing the game, I don't think you can understand what losing really is. It doesn't matter what year it is, it stings every time."

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