A 1-2 punch in the stomach

A 1-2 punch in the stomach

ANAHEIM -- As the champagne rained down on the Angels following their stirring victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series, one could already sense the storm clouds gathering above.

Sure, they'd just beaten the legendary Bronx Bombers and their $200 million lineup of cleanup hitters and, sure, they'd shown heart by coming back to Anaheim for a winner-take-all Game 5.

But this was a pretty dark sky looming overhead.

As victory cigars were smoked and beers were poured over giddy heads, the Angels' coaching staff was not only preparing for an all-night flight to Chicago for Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.

Pitching coach Bud Black was preparing for an ALCS without staff ace Bartolo Colon, the only 21-game winner in the AL, the probable Cy Young Award winner, and the man who personified the rock-steady starting pitching the Angels used to stay atop the AL West for most of the year despite an inconsistent offense.

And that wasn't Black's only worry.

The Angels' bullpen had been stretched as thin as it could get after five all-out games and long man Ervin Santana, fresh off a masterful bail-out job in ALDS Game 5, now needed for starting duty in place of Colon in the ALCS.

Meanwhile, hitting coach Mickey Hatcher had his own issues.

He was preparing for an ALCS with a big question mark by the previously unquestioned one, slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who had looked shaky and possibly injured while hitting nothing but six singles in the ALDS and not driving in a run.

Somehow, the Angels willed themselves a win in Game 1 in U.S. Cellular Field, getting six courageous innings from veteran starter Paul Byrd and a patchwork job in the bullpen.

They also got a lot of help from the White Sox, who were unable to execute the key small-ball plays -- sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs -- that had powered them to an AL-best 99 regular-season victories.

But in Game 2, Mark Buerhle dominated on the mound, umpire Doug Eddings made his now-famous ruling in the bottom of the ninth inning, Joe Crede doubled in the game-winner and the White Sox took a 1-1 series back to Anaheim.

That's when the storm hit the Angels. In a hurry.

Guerrero's struggles continued and continued to baffle.

He admitted that his shoulder was not 100 percent but also offered no excuses for his astoundingly frigid October. He went 1-for-20 (.050) in the ALCS, with the only hit a single off the foot of White Sox starter Jon Garland in Game 3.

"I feel bad because at times I wasn't able to come up with the big hit," Guerrero said through interpreter Jose Mota.

"I'm going to keep my head up. It wasn't the series I wanted to have."

Hatcher seemed as confused as Angels fans when asked why he thought Guerrero ran into perhaps the coldest five-game stretch of his career.

Was he hurt? Hatcher said he didn't know.

Was he trying too hard? Hatcher said he couldn't be sure.

"He hasn't told any of us anything," Hatcher said. "He didn't have that good look on his face, though. I think he was frustrated. I thought today might have been the day, but it wasn't.

"He wanted to be the guy. It just didn't happen for him."

It didn't happen for Colon, either. Not in the ALCS. Not at all.

The burly right-hander, so distraught over the shoulder strain that ended his postseason, wouldn't talk about it, and the Angels tried to act like it wasn't a big deal.

As of the end of the series there was no new information about the injury, either. One wonders whether it will affect his 2006 season.

When asked what Colon might have contributed to the ALCS if he was healthy enough to pitch, Angels starter Jarrod Washburn did what the rest of the Angels seemed to be doing in a quiet clubhouse: He wondered.

"Well, we got beat four to one," Washburn said. "He would have pitched one of the games, for sure. But that's a question no one really has an answer to.

"I guess I can't even really try to answer it."

Maybe that's the attitude the Angels should take now, after a series in which they were vanquished by what appeared to be a superior opponent.

Any good feelings Guerrero and the hitters might have had were dashed by the unfathomable: four straight complete games from the Chicago starting staff.

Any mojo Colon and the pitchers hoped to muster was put aside by a scrappy, opportunity-driven White Sox offense, the mirror of what the Angels wanted to be.

In the winter of 2003-2004, when the Angels finally said goodbye to the majority of the core of their World Series team of 2002, they welcomed the two highest-priced free agents in their history: Colon, the No. 1 starter, for four years and $51 million, and Guerrero, the centerpiece of the lineup, for five and $70 million.

Two straight division championships and one Division Series win in two years is a good start for a team that has built itself up to championship standards.

"We've had a terrific year and we ran into a club that played better than we did," Angels general manager Bill Stoneman said. "We have nothing to be ashamed of."

And that's something that isn't difficult to understand.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.