An Angel team that gave baseball one of the greatest collapses in major league history now has a chance to make one of the game's better comebacks--all in the same month.
Barely breathing only six days ago, and two games behind the Seattle Mariners with two to play, the Angels resuscitated their offense during a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics and closed the regular season with an 8-2 victory before an energized crowd of 34,716 in Anaheim Stadium Sunday.
The victory pushed the Angels (78-66) into a first-place tie with the Mariners, who lost to the Texas Rangers, 9-3, Sunday, and forced a one-game playoff between the Angels and Mariners today in the Seattle Kingdome to determine the American League West Division champion.
Mark Langston (15-6) will pitch for the Angels, and the Mariners will counter with 6-foot-10 left-hander Randy Johnson, one of the game's most dominant pitchers who is 17-2 and leads the major leagues with 282 strikeouts. Seattle is 25-3 in games that Johnson, known as the "Big Unit," has started.
The winner of the first one-game playoff in 15 years will advance to the best-of-five, divisional playoff against the New York Yankees Tuesday night in Yankee Stadium.
But there's more than a playoff berth at stake for the Angels, whose 10 1/2-game lead on Aug. 16 evaporated by Sept. 20--the quickest disappearance (35 days) of a lead that large this century, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Not only do the Angels have a shot at their first postseason berth since 1986, they have a chance to avoid a legacy that still haunts the 1978 Boston Red Sox, 1969 Chicago Cubs, 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, who are best remembered for their colossal late-season collapses.
"If we lose, we're still going to be labeled as a team that blew the lead," said Angel third-base coach Rick Burleson, the Boston Red Sox shortstop in 1978.
"No one remembered that we won our last eight games [to force a tie and one-game playoff against the Yankees] in 1978. All they remember is we blew [a 14-game] lead. That's the bottom line."
Still, the Angels were feeling much better about themselves after closing the regular season with five consecutive do-or-die victories, the last of which included:
--Chuck Finley limiting the A's to two runs on four hits and striking out nine, only four days after shutting out the Mariners for 6 1/3 innings in Wednesday's 2-0 victory in Seattle.
--Center fielder Jim Edmonds stroking four hits, including a two-out, two-run triple in the eighth that brought home the Angels' 799th and 800th runs of the season.
--Right fielder Tim Salmon knocking in two runs on three hits to raise his average to .332.
--Second baseman Rex Hudler singling twice to give him 10 hits in 15 at-bats for the series and saving the day with an over-the-shoulder, basket catch of Mark McGwire's popup with two runners on in the top of the eighth.
--Rookie reliever Troy Percival striking out three of five batters, including Scott Brosius to end the game with the crowd on its feet and about 30 police officers lining the field, bracing for a postgame celebration that never materialized.
--A postgame send-off in which hundreds of Angel fans created a human tunnel between the stadium and team bus, cheering and high-fiving players as they boarded for the ride to the airport.
"This team showed a heck of a lot of character, and that's how I'll remember this season," shortstop Gary DiSarcina said. "We swept Oakland, a team that has dominated us this season, and now we have a chance to do something no one thought we could do. Win or lose [today], that's how I'll remember this team."
While Seattle has lost two in a row--"I have one thing to say, thank you, Texas," designated hitter Chili Davis said--the Angels will carry much-needed momentum into Seattle.
The Angels scored a total of 26 runs in their final three games, in which they ended their habit of falling behind early and pressing to catch up, a pattern that contributed to their losing 28 of 37 games from mid-August to late September.
They scored two in the first inning Sunday on Tony Phillips' double, Edmonds' RBI single and J.T. Snow's RBI single. They added three in the third on Edmonds' double, Salmon's RBI single, Davis' RBI double and Garret Anderson's sacrifice fly to take a 5-1 lead.
They are now 54-17 when they score first.
"We're like piranhas, we feed off blood," Hudler said. "Once we get three runs, everyone is going, 'Let's get three more.' It's a greed thing. That's what we need."
The Angels' season comes down to one game in Seattle to prove whether they're winners or losers. C10