Angels try to find themselves in time for Game 5

There would be no shame in losing to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

They are, quite simply, the best team money can buy, with a $200-million payroll, superstar-filled lineup, dominant starting pitching and the best closer of all time.

But there would be little honor in going down the way the Angels have in three of the first four games in this best-of-seven series, which resumes with Game 5 tonight at Angel Stadium, where Angels ace John Lackey will oppose Yankees right-hander A.J. Burnett.


“This is not us,” pitcher Joe Saunders said. “It’s hard watching a game that you played so well all season, and then you come into the playoffs, and it’s almost like the whole team is in a panic.

“We played great baseball against Boston,” he said, referring to the division series, “we looked like our normal selves, but there’s something about this series . . . we haven’t been our normal selves.”

After sweeping the Red Sox in the first round, the Angels trail the Yankees, 3-1, in the ALCS. Only 11 of 69 teams have overcome 3-1 deficits to win seven-game series, the last being the 2007 Red Sox against Cleveland.

But it will be almost impossible for the Angels to win one game, let alone three straight, if they don’t play up to their capabilities.

The Angels led the major leagues with a .285 average this season; they are batting .201 (30 for 149) in the ALCS. They put constant pressure on opponents all summer; they have held the lead for only three of 42 innings against the Yankees.

The Angels set a franchise record by hitting .297 with runners in scoring position; they are four for 29 (.138) with runners in scoring position in the ALCS. They ranked second in the major leagues with 148 stolen bases; they have two stolen bases in the ALCS.

The Angels went first to third on singles 119 times, most in the majors; only once in this ALCS have the Angels even hit a single with a runner on first, and that runner stopped at second.

The Angels set a club record for fewest errors, with 85; they committed five errors in the first two games, losses in New York.

“I don’t know what it is, and you can’t put a finger on one thing, whether it’s situational hitting, pitchers getting behind hitters and not being aggressive,” said Saunders, who gave up two runs and six hits in seven innings of a Game 2 loss.

“It seems like we’re battling ourselves. Everyone is in a constant battle, and we’re coming up short. Individually, you’re thinking, ‘I’ve got to do my job,’ and it’s like everyone is just missing that ball or not getting the runner over or not getting ahead of guys and putting them away.”

The series seemed to turn in Game 3, when Jeff Mathis hit a walk-off, run-scoring double in the 11th inning to give the Angels a dramatic 5-4 victory Monday and pull the Angels to within 2-1 in the series.

But Yankees ace CC Sabathia put the Angels right back in their place Tuesday night, dominating them for eight one-run, five-hit innings in a 10-1 rout that pushed New York to within one victory of its first World Series berth since 2003.

“You would have thought Game 3 would have given us some momentum,” Saunders said. “I wouldn’t say we folded [Tuesday], but we went back to our normal battling mentality. You have to give CC credit. He can make anybody look bad.

“But it seems like we’re battling ourselves right now. We just need that one big hit, that one big strikeout, to turn the tables, that one stolen base, that one break, that three-run home run to put us over the top, and I think we’ll go from there.”

Manager Mike Scioscia acknowledged that his players feel a sense of urgency, “but it can’t cross that line of where a player is up there, getting out of their game and expanding their zone, or getting too passive because they think they’ve been swinging at pitches out of the zone,” he said.

“There is a lot that goes into it. Each player has to find that balance. There is not one magic pill that all of a sudden helps a whole offense come together.”

Some early runs tonight would help. The Angels have not scored first in any of the four games against the Yankees.

“If you’re always looking up at the wrong end of a game with a team like the Yankees, you’re not going to get it done,” Scioscia said. “The Yankees have played at a high level and have been able to dictate the terms of how the game unfolds.”

The Angels vow that if they go down, it won’t be without a fight. But they need to come out swinging, in a figurative and literal sense. They need to back the Yankees into a corner.

“We’ve got a mountain to climb -- it’s a must-win,” Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. “I’m not just frustrated. . . . We want to go out and play our game, and we haven’t quite gotten there yet. But the bell is about to ring. We need to get it done.”