ANAHEIM, Calif. – Right when Torii Hunter’s three-run homer hit the rock pile beyond centre field at Angel Stadium, two bursts of fireworks shot up from the artificial boulders.
The moment hardly needed the pyrotechnic punctuation. After several years of playoff frustrations against the Boston Red Sox, the Angels finally have a breakthrough.
John Lackey pitched into the eighth inning of his first post-season victory since 2002, and Hunter’s big hit in the fifth inning sent the Angels to a 5-0 victory over their longtime playoff nemesis in their first-round opener Thursday night.
While Lackey’s steady brilliance kept Boston off the post-season scoreboard for the first time in 14 years, Hunter’s shot broke open a scoreless game. It also seemed to topple any mental barriers Los Angeles might have faced against the Red Sox, who ended three of the Angels’ past five seasons in the division series, winning nine of 10 games.
“Whatever the hex is, I guess somebody un-hexed it,” Angels leadoff hitter Chone Figgins said. “We’ve played tight games with them before, and they came out on top. But we had the ace going on the mound, and Torii got a big hit.”
Boston didn’t manage an extra-base hit while getting shut out in the playoffs for the first time since Game 2 of the 1995 division series against Cleveland. The shutout was the first in the Angels’ 53-game post-season history.
Game 2 is Friday night at Angel Stadium, with Boston’s Josh Beckett facing Jered Weaver.
The AL West champion Angels snapped a six-game home playoff losing streak behind Lackey, who used fine control and good defence to win in the post-season for the first time since Game 7 of the World Series seven years ago.
“(Lackey) went out there and set the tone early,” Hunter said. “Man, we were so pumped up from then on. I’m excited about this start today.”
After striking out four and allowing four singles over 7 1-3 innings, Lackey doffed his cap to a standing ovation. Darren Oliver finished up with 1 2-3 innings of hitless relief.
“Even in the bullpen, I knew my arm was feeling good,” said Lackey, who pitched just once in the previous 11 days. “The extra rest that I had really helped me out. I really felt like my arm was pretty live tonight. … Our fans get dogged for not being loud enough, but they brought it tonight, and that ovation I got coming off the mound meant a lot to me.”
Jon Lester allowed four hits over six innings for the wild-card Red Sox, who had won five straight playoff series openers. Lester wasn’t as sharp as Lackey during his second loss since July 19, but he avoided trouble until the fifth.
Erick Aybar started the rally with a leadoff double down the left-field line. After Bobby Abreu walked, Hunter smashed Lester’s second pitch off the Disneyland-esque artificial rock pile for his fourth post-season homer.
“That was huge because of the way Lackey was pitching. Three runs looked like a lot,” Boston manager Terry Francona said.
Kendry Morales added a late run-scoring single and Abreu drew four walks for the Angels, who had lost six straight home playoff games. Although they’ve made six of the past eight post-seasons, the Angels lost three of four last fall to the Red Sox, who won the World Series after bouncing Los Angeles from the division series in 2004 and 2007.
“I think by and large we’re a pretty good offensive team, and Lackey shut us down with four singles,” Trail, B.C., native Jason Bay said. “Four singles and three errors isn’t going to win too many ballgames, so you tip your hat a little bit. But I think we can be better.”
Boston took the first two games at Angel Stadium in last season’s division series, including Lester’s 4-1 win over Lackey in the opener. In fact, the Angels had lost 12 of their 13 playoff games against Boston since the infamous Game 5 of the 1986 AL championship series, won in extra innings by the Red Sox after a ninth-inning rally capped by Dave Henderson’s homer.
Lackey had to escape just two jams in the first six innings, stranding two runners in the third on Dustin Pedroia’s fly to right before getting Kevin Youkilis’ grounder to third with two on in the sixth.
Los Angeles padded its lead in the seventh on Morales’ run-scoring hit and a heads-up play by Juan Rivera, who advanced to third and then scampered home when Jason Bay’s throw from left field got away. J.D. Drew threw out Morales at the plate moments later to end the inning.
“We gave them some extra opportunities,” Francona said.
Despite the Angels’ ominous playoff history against the Red Sox, the noisy Orange County crowd didn’t seem to be anticipating disappointment while clacking its ThunderStix and easily drowning out the surprisingly small Boston fan contingent on a slightly chilly night.
Neither pitcher faced much trouble until the third, when Lester issued back-to-back walks to load the bases before striking out Vladimir Guerrero on three pitches.
The Red Sox couldn’t get a break from first base umpire CB Bucknor, who twice called Howie Kendrick safe after Youkilis snagged wide throws. On both plays, in the fourth and sixth inning, replays appeared to contradict Bucknor’s calls – but the Angels did nothing with either opportunity.
NOTES: Francona didn’t appear in pre-game introductions because he wasn’t feeling well. He still managed the game. … Abreu’s four walks tied David Ortiz’s division series record, set Oct. 5, 2007, against the Angels. … Lackey thought he had ended the third inning with Jacoby Ellsbury’s grounder back to the mound, but plate umpire Joe West made a very late call of catcher’s interference, well after broadcaster TBS had already gone to commercials. Lackey still coolly retired Pedroia.