ANAHEIM, Calif. – Mere moments after the Los Angeles Angels unleashed their leaping, screeching, rambunctious Rally Monkey on the scoreboard, they erased a late deficit and saved their season.
Surely that monkey business was just a coincidence. He’s just a marketing gimmick, a video star and a plush toy – right?
Not to the fans who watched it happen Thursday night in the latest improbability of an American League Championship Series game. Not to the Yankees, who were three innings away from tickets to the World Series before the Angels snatched them away with a 7-6 comeback victory that cut New York’s edge to 3-2.
“Anything is possible, man,” Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. “Baseball is a crazy game, man. You see some crazy things. Every time you come to the game, you’ve probably been to 1,000 games, and you see something different every year.”
Kendry Morales drove in the go-ahead run with a two-out single in the seventh inning as the Angels responded to the Yankees’ six-run comeback moments earlier with a three-run rally of their own, each hit more improbable than the last.
When closer Brian Fuentes retired Nick Swisher on a bases-loaded, full-count popup for the final, perilous out, the Angels and their monkey had held on – and evoked the faintest echoes of the Yankees’ last trip to this stage of the post-season, which ended in their unprecedented four-game flameout in 2004.
“It’s a missed opportunity, but we still have another game,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “We’ve bounced back from tough losses all year long. We’ve had it happen to us before and been able to get off the carpet.”
Game 6 is Saturday night at Yankee Stadium, with Andy Pettitte facing Los Angeles’ Joe Saunders. Also in the forecast: a huge rainstorm.
“It gives them a couple more days of hope, and hopefully that hope ends on Saturday because anything can happen, especially with as tough of conditions as we’re going to be playing in,” said Johnny Damon, who went 1-for-5. “They still have to beat us two times at our place, and hopefully that’s going to be tough to do.”
When Robinson Cano jubilantly rolled into third base with a two-run triple to put New York up 6-4 in the seventh, everything in sombre Angel Stadium pointed to a clinching victory, a record 40th AL pennant and a date with Philadelphia next week for the Yankees. Surely the season would be forever tainted by manager Mike Scioscia’s decision with two outs in the seventh to pull John Lackey, the workhorse starter who dominated New York for six innings.
Instead, the Angels showed off the knack for late-game comebacks they’ve possessed ever since their run to their only championship in 2002, when the beloved Rally Monkey began appearing in the late innings. Los Angeles set the franchise record with 47 comeback wins this season, and both of their playoff wins over the Yankees were comebacks.
Vladimir Guerrero’s single tied it in the seventh for the Angels, who didn’t surrender after blowing a 4-0 lead in a must-win game.
“It was definitely a do-or-die situation,” said Lackey, who dominated the Yankees for six innings before getting pulled with two outs in the seventh. “Now we’ve got one more game to go, and hopefully we’ll make it to the next one. The guys showed a lot of character tonight, for sure. Having the rough seventh inning and then coming right back and scoring three runs showed a lot about our team.”
Although two games in the Bronx – and shutdown starter CC Sabathia – still stand in the Angels’ way, the collapse raised the slightest reminders of what happened to the Yankees’ last big lead in an ALCS. The Red Sox famously rallied from an 0-3 deficit in 2004, making a late rally to win Game 4 before finishing off the biggest comeback in baseball history in seven games.
Only six teams have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win a league championship series – most recently in 2007, when Boston came back against Sabathia and Cleveland on the way to a title. Including the World Series, 11 of 70 teams that fell into a 3-1 hole have made the comeback.
Four teams previously have won the final two LCS games on the road.
The Angels hadn’t scored a run before the fourth inning of any playoff game this fall until they jumped on Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who yielded eight hits and three walks.
Lackey, soon to be among the sport’s most coveted free agents, cruised through the first six innings after Los Angeles scored four in the first, and the ace reacted with audible disappointment when Scioscia pulled him from what might be his final start with his only team.
Lackey left to a standing ovation with a tip of his cap – and the Yankees probably were cheering, too.
Reliever Darren Oliver yielded a three-run double to Mark Teixeira – 3-for-21 in the ALCS at that point – on his first pitch, and Hideki Matsui added a tying single.
Incredibly, it wasn’t over – and Burnett shared the blame with his bullpen. Altogether, the seventh inning featured nine runs and 63 pitches over nearly 45 minutes.
Jeff Mathis and Erick Aybar reached base to chase Burnett, the big-money free agent who’s still winless in three post-season starts. After Mathis scored on Bobby Abreu’s RBI groundout, Guerrero’s dribbling single against reliever Phil Hughes eluded a diving Derek Jeter to tie it – and Morales put the Angels ahead with the latest clutch hit of his breakout season.
“That’s not a forgiving team over there,” Scioscia said. “They hit pretty quick in that inning with six runs, and we bounced back and answered with three. In the dugout between innings, guys were still pumped up. Just some real good hitting.”
Jered Weaver, who started Game 3 for the Angels, pitched a hitless eighth before Fuentes barely escaped the ninth. After two quick outs, he intentionally walked Alex Rodriguez with nobody on base before walking Matsui and hitting Cano with a pitch to load the bases for the slumping Swisher, who battled Fuentes for seven pitches before popping out.
“My hair is falling out,” said the shaved-headed Hunter, who had a two-run single in the first. “We’re having a little fun, man. Everybody thought we were down.”
NOTES: In the latest instance of questionable umpiring in a post-season chock-full of it, Damon appeared to beat Lackey to first base on a bang-bang play to end the third inning, but Dale Scott ruled him out. … Wearing a Yankees cap, “Escape From New York” star Kurt Russell was at Angel Stadium more than two hours early to watch batting practice. … Mathis set the club’s playoff record with hits in six straight at-bats. He had a single in the second inning, a double in the fifth and another single in the seventh.