The big clock high atop the left-field stands in Yankee Stadium clicked over to midnight, and the Angels’ Cinderella slipper came off.
Pinch-hitter Gary Matthews Jr. took one last big swing and missed. A season that had begun in tragedy 6 1/2 months ago had ended merely in sadness.
The Yankees had won, 5-2, and with that the American League Championship Series, four games to two. The talk began immediately of a possible 27th World Series championship for the Yankees, who will wait until Wednesday for the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies to drive up Interstate 95 for Game 1.
The Southern California Freeway Series that had disappeared last week when the Phillies proved better than the Dodgers became, in retrospect, an exercise in fantasy as the Yankees proved better than the Angels.
In baseball, there is only one winner, one completely happy clubhouse when the incredibly long season ends, and there were hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of fans who saw fate making that the Angels.
When young pitcher Nick Adenhart was killed in a horrible auto accident just hours after he had pitched the game of his life in Anaheim Stadium in early April, the Angels became a national sentimental favorite.
They carried Adenhart’s jersey with them everywhere. When they won the division title, they poured champagne on his picture on the outfield wall and dismissed critics of that act -- Adenhart’s death came in a wreck caused by an alleged drunk driver -- by saying they wanted him with them and had he been, that’s what they would have done.
Sadly, sentimental favorites don’t beat the Yankees, unless they are better. The Angels won 97 games, dismissed the ghosts of Boston Red Sox past in the division series, and got the Yankees to within one game of a Game 7 showdown. But they weren’t better.
Mike Scioscia, the Angels’ manager, who is now among the most respected in the game, congratulated the Yankees afterward and said what was obvious and accurate.
“They played an incredible series,” he said. “They outplayed us, and they deserved to win.”
He was also accurate and appropriate about his own team.
“It’s tough to get a silver lining,” he said, adding that he considered his team a “special group” and saying it in a way that made clear this wasn’t just lip service.
“It was a special group in there to keep going,” he said. “A special group to keep bringing Nick’s memory forward every day. Every day, we came to the park, he’s still with us.”
The Yankees won 103 games, best in baseball. And with reason. Their star players are otherworldly. You can argue that the Yankees are simply buying another title, but you cannot argue that they have failed to get their money’s worth.
Any pitching staff having to face, on a regular basis presented by a seven-game series, the likes of Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada must go into the off-season wide-eyed and mumbling to itself. Then the Yankees shell out even more money for the likes of left-handed pitching ace CC Sabathia and get a Game 6 masterpiece from old hand Andy Pettitte and the usual saves from the man who epitomizes the term “closer,” Mariano Rivera, and you wonder why the other teams even try.
Yes, hope springs eternal, especially right now in Philadelphia.
The rest of major league baseball can merely go back and reload.
Many argue now that the most important season in baseball is November and December, trade and free-agent time.
The Angels will go from wrestling with legends in pinstripes to tackling their own personnel situation. Ace pitcher John Lackey will be a free agent. So will leadoff hitter Chone Figgins, right fielder and hitting star Bobby Abreu and longtime power hitter Vlad Guerrero. The season of hits and runs is now the season of wheel and deal, trade and sign.
Sunday’s game ended with the Angels trying to bounce back one last time, in a season built on resiliency. They scratched out a rare run in the eighth against Rivera, who hadn’t given up an earned run in a playoff game at home -- old Yankee Stadium or the new one -- since the 2000 World Series against the Mets. When they did, it cut the lead to 3-2.
But all the air came out for the last time in the Yankees’ eighth, when they scored twice more without getting a hit. The Angels dropped a throw at first base off a bunt and tossed another, off a second bunt, well over the head of second baseman Howie Kendrick, covering at first. It was a play you’d see from a nervous prospect in spring training, not in the sixth game of the LCS.
It was both the symbolic and actual end.
Rivera closed them in order in the ninth. He didn’t break all their bats this time, just their hearts. Soon, the 50,173 who had come and held their breath against the necessity of a seventh game and a possible choke erupted in celebration and relief. The Yankees celebrated on the field. The stadium echoed with the inevitable sounds of “New York, New York.”
Almost unnoticed, a group of red-clad players, heads down, made their way from the bullpen into the Angels clubhouse. The home team had won, the better team in this case, and these men in red wanted to go and hide, while the New York crowd spread the news.