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Angels take crucial first step

Angels take crucial first step

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ANAHEIM -- All the Angels required was some truly classic October baseball and a convincing episode of role reversal.

That might be asking a lot from one American League Division Series opener. But that is exactly what the Angels got Thursday night in a 5-0 victory over their perennial postseason problem, the Boston Red Sox.

The Angels were 1-9 in the previous three ALDS against the Red Sox, an admittedly dismal record for a franchise that has established itself as an elite regular-season operation with five division titles in the past six years. The Angels' offense had typically been shut down by Boston pitching in these defeats. Here, the Angels flipped the script.

Those games in which the Angels had decent starting pitching but the other guys had terrific starting pitching? This was turnabout. It was John Lackey against Boston lefty Jon Lester, a rematch of the 2008 ALDS opener, won by Lester and the Sox. This time it was Lester who was good, but left without adequate run support. And it was Lackey who was in the immediate neighborhood of untouchable.

This is the classic postseason pattern: games controlled by the pitchers, run at a premium, every play could be pivotal, every pitch has serious meaning. That's what Lackey and Lester were up to for the first half of this game, 4 1/2 innings played with no runs scored. This was one of those games that would be determined by which pitcher gave way first.

This time, it was the Boston pitcher. The break was sudden; a double, a sacrifice bunt and a walk in the bottom of the fifth setting up the Angels' first good shot at scoring. Torii Hunter put an end to the two-way shutout with a monumental blast to left-center.

These three runs turned out to be more than Lackey needed. There had been plenty of people more than willing to remind him constantly about the losing results the past two Octobers. There had been plenty of people ready to point out that he had not won a postseason decision since Game 7 of the 2002 World Series.

But on Lackey's side of the argument, he had not pitched badly in the postseason, putting up a 3.02 ERA coming into this series. He basically had not received enough help from his associates with the bats. Here, he put the criticism into hibernation with a gem, a performance that was as brilliant as it was necessary.

He pitched 7 1/3 innings, allowing only four hits -- all singles -- and one walk against the third-best offense in the AL. Lackey left the game in the eighth to a thunderous standing ovation from Angels fans, who were as grateful as they were happy.

This is a club of ability and versatility and accomplishment, a team that plays aggressively and intelligently. It just had this one stumbling block that was threatening to turn the postseason into a permanent dead end. But this performance, this victory, made the October outlook considerably brighter.

"We've played tight games against [the Red Sox], but they've always come out of top," said third baseman Chone Figgins, a defensive star in this game. "We've been close so many times.

"But it's different this year. It's changed."

The Angels got a lead in the series and a healthy serving of satisfaction from this game. The big hit, the outstanding start, excellent all-around play, all of it in one game against Boston in the postseason.

"Torii's hit was important for a number of reasons," manager Mike Scioscia said. "And you couldn't pitch much better than John pitched tonight. To get 22 outs against a club that makes you work for every out, for a starter, that's big.

"I think what feels good is just us playing a good ballgame in a playoff game. We did it in Game 3 in Boston last year, we played a terrific game. Even in Game 4 we played well. We just didn't get the clutch hit that we got tonight."

Doing something like this again, twice more in this series, would be the next goal. But for the Angels, the crucial first step was taken Thursday night. They played a postseason game against the Boston Red Sox that became not only a victory, but possibly a breakthrough.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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