- The Washington Times - Friday, October 16, 2009

The William Harridge Trophy, awarded annually to the American League champion, is one of the least recognizable trophies in sports. What’s even less well-known is that the 2009 version of the trophy has not, in fact, been awarded to the New York Yankees.

It might seem hard to believe now that the Yankees open the AL Championship Series at home Friday without having to face their nemeses, the Boston Red Sox. But the opponent taking Boston’s place might present an even greater challenge to the Yankees’ World Series march.

The Los Angeles Angels, who broke up the Yankees-Red Sox party with a three-game sweep of Boston in the first round, split 10 games with New York during the regular season, ranked right behind them in most offensive categories and posted the second-best record in baseball behind the Yankees.

Oh, and they knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs in 2002 and 2005.

Those series might have taken place with a number of different players, but no one in New York is assuming what so many others are: that they’ll cruise to their first World Series since 2003.

“There’s been a lot made of what has happened between the Angels and the Yankees the last 10 years. And I think sometimes what’s not talked about is how good of a team they’ve been over the last 10 years,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “World Series teams, ALCSes, winning their division, winning 100 games. They’ve been very tough on the Yankees. They’re different than most teams. To me they remind me of teams that when I came up and played, it was like playing the St. Louis Cardinals; there was going to be a lot of action. One thing that you can’t do is get caught up in the action. You have to continue to make pitches on them.”

That duty will first fall to CC Sabathia, the Yankees’ starter in Game 1. Sixty-five percent of the runners who attempted to steal on Sabathia this year were successful - but that was down from 80 percent last year, and only 20 runners attempted to swipe a base on the big left-hander this year.

The Angels stole 148 bases, third most in the American League, and led the league by reaching third or scoring from first on a single 127 times.

A.J. Burnett, the Yankees’ probable Game 2 starter, is easier to run on; all 31 of the baserunners who attempted to steal on him in 2007 were successful, and those numbers were 71 percent last year and 66 percent this year.

Especially when the series shifts to Anaheim for Game 3, keeping the top of the Angels’ order off the basepaths will be a big key for the Yankees.

“When you have [Chone] Figgins over there and he’s jumping around and [Erick] Aybar and those guys, it’s tough,” Sabathia said. “It’s easy to make a bad pitch or hang a pitch to one of the guys in the middle of the lineup.”

The weather also could hurt the Yankees. There is rain in the forecast most of the weekend, and a rain delay could push Game 2 into Sunday’s off day. If that happens, the Yankees might have to call on unproven Chad Gaudin for Game 4 rather than bringing Sabathia back on short rest. The Angels, in contrast, have four reliable starters: John Lackey, Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver and Scott Kazmir.

It’s yet another possible headache for a team that wasn’t supposed to face too many of those now that the Red Sox are out of the picture. But the Angels, from the start of the postseason until now, have provided plenty of headaches. And that’s without even mentioning the ThunderStix.

“I think their owner, Arte Moreno, has done a great job,” Girardi said. “They’ve kept their staff pretty much intact there. They’ve played pretty much the same type of baseball under Mike Scioscia. They have a lot of homegrown talent. They do a very good job in that. So from top to bottom they’ve done a wonderful job.”

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