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Angels Hit the Sound Barrier

Times Staff Writer

There were no sounds of joy, of enthusiasm, of the primal noises created by banging sticks together. Instead, in a place you would least expect it, and on a night you would least expect it, there were the sounds of silence.

The defense of the first World Series title in Angel history began with a whimper Sunday, in an uninteresting 6-3 loss to the Texas Rangers. The sellout crowd at Edison Field roared as the Angels unveiled the championship flag before the game, but by the final inning some of the fans had departed and others had apparently let the air out of their noise sticks.

“We didn’t really give them anything to cheer about,” Angel shortstop David Eckstein said.

Even the most elaborate of ceremonies cannot substitute for spontaneous electricity, and so it went for the Angels and their fans on opening night. They last assembled here in October, for Game 7 of the World Series, with the loud and relentless beat of the noise sticks backing the victory of rookie John Lackey.

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They assembled again here Sunday, cheering the display of the championship flag and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” for the display of the national flag, but no longer were noise sticks and Edison Field an automatic high-volume equation. Lackey lost. The 2002 season was over. Game 7 was over.

“It’s hard to compare any game to that,” Lackey said. “The atmosphere was pretty awesome then. But that’s something we’ve got to put in the past. We’ve got 161 more games, and last year is not going to help us any.”

The winning pitcher was Ismael Valdes, discarded by the Angels a year ago. When the Angels dropped Valdes and Pat Rapp from their starting rotation and replaced them with Kevin Appier and Aaron Sele, they proudly talked of upgrading from pitchers who eat innings to pitchers who win. In the first opening-day start of his career, Valdes ate five innings, gave up three runs and seven hits and won.

The losing pitcher was Lackey, brilliant in Game 7 but erratic Sunday. The first three pitches of the season were balls. He walked two in the first inning, giving up two singles and a run as well. He made 27 pitches in the first inning, 90 in his five innings, and gave up five runs.

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After Brad Fullmer tied the score with a single in the bottom of the first and Garret Anderson gave the Angels a 2-1 lead in the third, Lackey gave up a three-run homer to Michael Young in the fourth and a solo shot to Alex Rodriguez in the fifth.

“Nerves isn’t going to be a word I’m ever going to use,” Lackey said. “I’ve pitched as big a game as you can pitch. I was excited. I wanted to get us off to a good start and pitch well. I wasn’t able to do it.”

The rally monkey whiffed too. Lethargy enveloped the stands over the final four innings, when the Angels managed one hit against Texas relievers Aaron Fultz, Francisco Cordero and Ugueth Urbina.

But the atmosphere deteriorated to subdued earlier, in a sometimes sloppy game that included third baseman Troy Glaus failing to field one ground ball and losing another ball while transferring it from his glove to his bare hand, center fielder Darin Erstad bunting into a force play, Lackey dropping a feed while covering first base and Fullmer and catcher Bengie Molina grounding into double plays.

“There were a couple breakdowns, but that’s baseball,” Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. “I think we’re a good defensive club. I don’t anticipate that being an issue.”

Scioscia preferred to consider the pregame ceremony a reward and an inspiration and said its length did not tranquilize his team.

“I can’t call the loss a letdown,” he said.

“There’s only one time that first banner is going up. To experience it here, and to experience it in front of fans that have been here 42 years, you have to feel good for that.”

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The Angels did not fret after Sunday’s defeat. They have lost four consecutive openers, so this was nothing new. They lost last year’s opener, 6-0, and last year turned out just fine. Just check out that bright red flag now flying in center field.

“It’s one game, man,” Lackey said. “We might lose again this year.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

By the Numbers

21-22: Angel record on opening day

4: Consecutive losses on opening day

7: Different starting pitchers on opening day in last seven seasons (Langston, Finley, Belcher, Hill, Schoeneweis, Washburn, Lackey)

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43,525: Sunday’s attendance

1: Different players in opening day lineup compared with last season’s opening day lineup (Scott Spiezio replaces Benji Gil at first base)


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