- The Washington Times - Friday, October 23, 2009

ANAHEIM, Calif. | Just when it looked like the Los Angeles Angels were finished, just when it looked like they had squandered their last opportunity and had handed the pennant to the New York Yankees, this feisty ballclub pulled off one final miracle and staved off elimination for at least another two nights.

Despite blowing a late four-run lead that left them nine outs from extinction, the Angels rallied to retake control of Game 5 on Thursday night and hung on to beat the Yankees 7-6 and send the American League Championship Series back to the Bronx.

New York may yet wrap up its 40th AL pennant, either by capturing Game 6 on Saturday or a potential Game 7 on Sunday, but it won’t come easy against a Los Angeles club that refuses to go quietly.

“That’s the playoffs for you,” third baseman Chone Figgins said. “You never know what’s going to happen. We live to fight another day.”

No one would have faulted the Angels for rolling over Thursday, especially after they watched the Yankees rally for six runs in the seventh to reclaim control of both this game and the series. But spurred on by their Rally Monkey-waving, ThunderStix-clapping crowd, the Angels wrested the lead right back from New York with three runs of their own in the bottom of that inning.

The biggest hits came from the heart of Los Angeles’ lineup. Cleanup man Vladimir Guerrero, further erasing his past playoff failures, delivered a two-out, tiebreaking single up the middle off reliever Phil Hughes. Kendry Morales then followed with an RBI single of his own, bringing home Torii Hunter with the go-ahead run and sending the crowd of 45,113 into a frenzy.

It still required two clean innings out of the Angels’ bullpen to finish this one off. But right-hander Jered Weaver, pressed into relief duty for only the second time in his career, retired the side in the eighth, and closer Brian Fuentes confronted his demons to escape the ninth unscathed.

Victimized by Alex Rodriguez in the 11th inning of Game 2, Fuentes this time intentionally walked the most feared hitter in the postseason with two outs and nobody on, then walked Hideki Matsui and plunked Robinson Cano to load the bases. Somehow, the lefty managed to get Nick Swisher to pop out with a full count, sending both teams packing for a red-eye flight to the East Coast.

“I know it’s bases loaded, but I didn’t really think about it until it was 3-2,” Fuentes said. “Then it was, OK, I either need a strikeout or get the ball in play. I just tried to stay relaxed, slow the heart down and make a pitch. And it worked.”

The Angels spent practically the entire postseason playing from behind; entering Game 5, they had yet to score a run in the first three innings of any of their seven games. So if they were going to have a reasonable shot at avoiding elimination Thursday night, they were going to have to deliver the first blow.

Did they ever. Los Angeles’ first five batters of the night reached safely, energizing the crowd and stunning Yankees starter A.J. Burnett. The right-hander walked Figgins, then allowed a double to Bobby Abreu and singles to Hunter and Guerrero.

Morales’ subsequent RBI single capped the Angels’ four-run rally and set the tone for the evening’s proceedings. From that point on, this was a contest between the vaunted Yankees lineup and John Lackey’s ability to hold it at bay.

The Angels ace was brilliant in doing just that. Lackey wove his way through the game’s first six innings with ease. And then his whole night was derailed by that fateful seventh.

The key moment actually came only three batters in, when plate umpire Fieldin Culbreth ruled a borderline 3-2 fastball just outside the strike zone. Lackey threw both arms out in indignation, and that one moment of frustration may have thrown him completely off-kilter. He proceeded to walk Derek Jeter on four pitches, and though he got Johnny Damon to fly out, Angels manager Mike Scioscia decided not to take any more chances after that.

Lefty Darren Oliver then gave up a bases-clearing double to Mark Teixeira that ignited the New York bench. After intentionally walking Rodriguez, Oliver served up another run-scoring hit to Matsui and forced Scioscia to make another pitching change.

Right-hander Kevin Jepsen entered and was immediately greeted by Cano with a drive to right-center, a triple that capped the Yankees’ six-run rally and left them nine outs from securing the pennant.

But if anyone assumed that would be the final chapter of this wacky ALCS, they haven’t been paying attention. There was far more drama yet to play out. And there will be even more drama this weekend in the Bronx.

“Anytime you have a chance to close out a series and you don’t win, no matter what the score is, it’s a missed opportunity,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “But we get a chance to go to our ballpark, where we’ve played extremely well.”

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