Over the course of their 42-year history, the Angels had earned just three previous invitations to the postseason, in 1979, 1982, and 1986, and each series had ended with either a disappointing or a devastating defeat. Fast-forward to the year 2002, on the sunny afternoon of October the fifth, and the Halos found themselves once again just one victory away from doing something no other Angel team had ever been able to do -- win a postseason series. A Game Four victory would surely be a dream come true for every fan who had ever rooted for the team, but to do it at home, against the New York Yankees, the team that had been the American League’s World Series representative for the past four seasons, the team that was loaded with stars and had a $135 million dollar payroll, which more than doubled the payroll of cost-cutting Disney’s Anaheim Angels at $60 million? That would truly make a win on this day utterly surreal.
If the Angels lost Game Four, however, that meant the team would have to fly back to New York for a winner-take-all Game Five, but for fans who had been following this team all year long, the entertaining of that idea just seemed like a polite formality -- we all knew that there was no way the Angels were going to lose. Even Yankee manager Joe Torre gave the impression that his team was going to need a miracle to stop the Angels from winning. "They're good," he conceded to reporters gathered around him in the visiting team’s manager’s office after Game Three. "We knew they were good coming in, and right now they're playing with a great deal of confidence, they're playing very aggressively."
I can tell you that before this Game Four started, almost all of the 45,067 fans who had gathered at Edison Field that Saturday afternoon were fit to burst from the high expectations that they carried with them into the stadium. I know because I was fortunate enough to be one of the many Angel fans floating around inside the stadium that day, trying to nervously hold my giddy joy in check.
I had expected the ratio of Angel fans to Yankee fans for this game to be higher than usual, but I was shocked at how high it actually was. When I would normally go to an Angels’ home game against the Yankees, at least one-fourth of the fans in attendance would be of the Yankee persuasion (many of them boldly obnoxious), but on this day, everywhere I looked, I saw fan, after fan, after fan wearing Angel gear. By the time I shut my car door for the drive home, I still found it hard to believe that I could count the number of Yankee supporters I had seen with two hands.
Right before the pre-game ceremonies, I sat with one of my friends in a prime field box seat behind third base. The game had been sold out for a long time, but I had lucked out because the father of a friend of mine worked at a company that had season passes, and it held a drawing for two tickets, which he had won and given to his son. That extra ticket would turn out to be one of the best gifts I have ever received.
As you can imagine, the systems of both fan and player alike were coursing with adrenaline as we all stood to watch the first pitch of the game. It came out of Jarrod Washburn’s left hand and was delivered alongside the deafening applause of the Thunderstix. The sound of those things, out of sync and coming from 45 thousand points around the stadium, was absolutely deafening. When they were all going full-throttle, you could yell something to the person standing right next to you and not be heard.
Washburn needed the boost those noisemakers provided because he was pitching on just three days’ rest, which shows you how desperate Scioscia was to bury the Yankees in this game. Right away, it seemed like this tactic was going to pay off because although leadoff hitter Alfonso Soriano forced Washburn to throw eight pitches in this opening at bat, the final pitch ended in a swing and a miss, and just like that, the Yankees were down to their final 26 outs.
Washburn proved to be a battler that day, his final pitch coming at the end of the top of the fifth inning when Bernie Williams hit a line drive to Troy Glaus, who gloved it for the out at third base. When Washburn walked off of the mound, he did it to the adoration of the thousands of fans at the stadium who were practically certain that Washburn’s efforts that day were going to lead to the ending everyone desired, even though the Yankees were temporarily ahead two-runs-to-one.
When the Angels came to bat that fifth inning, what unfolded was the big show that everyone had anticipated and had all along seemed inevitable. Designated hitter Shawn Wooten led things off by blasting a 2-0 fastball from David Wells deep into the rock formation behind the left-center field wall to immediately tie the game. And then after that, seven of the next nine Angel batters hit a single, punching baseball after baseball safely into left field, into center field, and into right field. Four times in this inning, an Angel runner would sprint from first to third on a single. Thirteen batters would eventually come to the plate, with eight of them stamping their cleated foot on it as they ran in from third base to add yet another run to the Angel total. The stadium was rocking for what seemed like an hour with 45 thousand jumping and cheering fans. My face felt like it was going to break from the huge smile that was locked on to it. I repeatedly turned to high-five all of the people around me, total strangers for the most part, who were all sharing with me one of the most joyful, transcendent experiences of my lifetime.
This exuberance wasn’t limited to the stands, though. As you can imagine, there was also a lot of excited energy being expended in the Angel dugout as the players celebrated each base hit, each run that further separated them from their opponent. Washburn explained that he "almost passed out a couple of times from jumping up and down. It was unbelievable!"
The final runs of that inning came when Bengie Molina blistered a flat slider from Ramiro Mendoza that chased his left fielder to the warning track, ricocheted off of the green padding of the bullpen wall, and scored Scott Spiezio from third base and Wooten all the way from first.
By the time this half inning was through, the Angels had taken a seemingly insurmountable 9-2 lead. The Yankees still had four innings left to try to save their season, except that everyone knew that just wasn’t going to happen, not when the Angels had Brendan Donnelly, Francisco Rodriguez, and Troy Percival in their bullpen pacing around like hungry tigers, and the Yankees knew it. If you were watching on television, you could see the dejection on the Yankees' faces, like there was nothing left for them to do but cash in their remaining twelve outs and watch the Angels celebrate at the end of the game.
That celebration would come at the end of the ninth inning, when the Angels were leading 9-5, and Percival peered in for the sign from his catcher, Bengie Molina. The call was for a fastball, and Percival let it rip. Nick Johnson put a good swing on it, but he was just underneath it, popping it up to the left side of the infield. Shortstop David Eckstein immediately started waving his arms to shoo away anyone who might come near him, and in that deserted area, he made the catch.
Percival took a quick knee in front of the mound, pumped his fist, and then stood up with both arms high in the air and waited for the rest of the Angels to come showering down upon him at the heart of the diamond.
It was over.
They did it. They finally did it.
Amazingly, the Angel offense had 56 hits and had scored 31 runs in these four ALDS games. And they did it against a Yankee team that was in the midst of a dynasty. Against Clemens, Mussina, Pettitte, Wells, and Rivera, the members of a pitching staff that manager Joe Torre had said during this series was the best he ever had.
As a fan, the relentless nature of this Angel offense was glorious to behold. One reason it was so potent was that it wasn’t just the stars who could pummel you. This Game Four was the perfect example of that, as the Angel hit parade was led by two platoon players, Shawn Wooten and Benji Gil, who each had three hits and were pencilled into the lineup only because the opposing starting pitcher, David Wells, threw with his left hand.
And after the game, instead of sounding bitter, Wells almost sounded like a fan himself. He said of his victors, "They brought out the whupping stick. They outpitched us and outplayed us. We didn’t expect it because we all had good vibes coming into this series, but the better team won. I hope they go all the way. I really do. You want the team that beats you to go all the way."
Derek Jeter seconded the motion by testifying to reporters that, "If they keep playing the way they’re playing, no one is going to beat them."
In the Angel clubhouse, once it was possible to get down to the business of recording some post-game quotations from the jubilant players and staff, Jarrod Washburn said about pitching on three days’ rest after the end of a long regular season, "I was gassed after about one inning. I was running on fumes the rest of the day."
Troy Percival then explained to reporters, "We had to get the monkey off our backs, all that history with the Angels. Now it’s just fun. The pressure is off."
And true to his word, the coming ALCS against the Minnesota Twins would prove just how much fun these Angels could have playing October baseball.