One last surprise

After six nights of roller coaster weirdness, the Angels and Giants played a relatively uneventful Game 7. And when it was over, Anaheim almost looked like fun.

Topics: Baseball,

Wasn’t that the damndest World Series? Last year we got a Series of classic themes: The rowdy upstarts knocking off the regal, aging and favored champs, but not before those champs saved themselves from the brink several times with ridiculous late-inning heroics. The drama even took place in three acts, with the off days serving as intermezzos.

The 2002 version was more like a slapstick farce. Just when you thought you had the damn thing figured out, it gave you a good kick in the Eisner. I counted five drastic momentum changes, not that there’s any such thing as momentum in baseball. The San Francisco Giants looked terminal after Game 3. The Anaheim Angels looked comatose after Game 5.

Both franchises have fans who believe in their heart of hearts that when the chips are down, their team will choke on the chips. Being a fan of the Angels since their 1961 founding or of the Giants since their 1958 move west has meant living through years of disappointment and heartache. Each side has its list: the ’82 and ’86 playoff collapses and the blown 11-game lead in ’95 for the Angels; Willie McCovey’s line drive in ’62, all those second-place finishes in the ’60s and the doomed ’93 stretch run for the Giants. And that’s not to mention years upon years of dreary losing and empty seats. The damndest thing of all is that one of these teams was going to have to win this thing.

That team turned out to be the Angels, and they won their first championship by supplying one last surprise. After all we’d seen — the electric pitching of rookie Francisco Rodriguez, the breathtaking home runs by Barry Bonds, the rollicking, see-saw battles of Games 2 and 6 — the only way the Angels could have shocked us was by winning a solid, taut, relatively uneventful game, which is precisely what they did Sunday, subduing the Giants 4-1 and setting off a celebration that almost, but not quite, made Anaheim look like a fun place.

Slugging outfielder Garret Anderson was the hero, thanks to his three-run double that broke a 1-1 tie and gave the game its final score. But that was only in the third inning. Most of the game consisted of the Giants trying to come up with something against Lackey and relievers Brendan Donnelly, Rodriguez and Troy Percival, all of whom pitched well.



Their first chance came in the top of the fourth, right after the Angels’ outburst. Bonds, who batted with the bases empty all four times he came up, singled with one out, as did Benito Santiago behind him. That brought J.T. Snow to the plate as the tying run. Snow is a brilliant defensive first baseman who was never a great hitter, but has been an offensive liability for the last two seasons. But he’d found his swing this postseason. He was solid in the first round of the playoffs against Atlanta, then had a key hit in the League Championship Series against St. Louis. He would end the World Series as the Giants’ second leading hitter, behind Bonds, at .407 with six runs scored and four batted in. But he flied out. Two away.

That brought up Reggie Sanders. The key to the Giants’ success is what happens after Bonds. Since opponents won’t pitch to him in situations where he can hurt them, it becomes imperative for the men who follow him in the batting order to hit. If those guys — Santiago, Snow, Sanders and David Bell — are swinging well, the pitcher’s choice when Bonds comes up is between damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Sanders hadn’t been hitting. After a good start in the first two games of the Series, he’d gone 1-for-13 with two RBIs, including the first-inning sacrifice fly that drove in what turned out to be the Giants’ only run Sunday. Lackey got him to fly out to right and the threat was over. I had a feeling at the time that the ballgame was over too. I was right.

The Giants brought the tying run to the plate in two more innings, the sixth and the ninth, but never with the fat part of the lineup coming up. Pinch-hitters Tom Goodwin and Tsuyoshi Shinjo, neither of whom is a capable big-league hitter, both struck out.

What a great Series. Four of the games were great, and only two, a rout for each side, were dogs. Game 7 was in between, not a bad game, but not a dandy either, unless you’re an Angels fan, in which case the six innings of anticipation followed by the explosion of joy were a thrill. The TV ratings were terrible, with the Eastern half of the country tuning out in droves, which shouldn’t mean much to anybody not in the TV business except that a lot of people missed some good baseball. Their loss.

The managers, Mike Scioscia of the Angels and Dusty Baker of the Giants, have both been widely praised for getting their teams here, and rightly so. They are two of the better examples of the point that managing a baseball team is about 90 percent managing and 10 percent baseball. Scioscia and Baker are both good communicators and good leaders, but neither is a particularly good in-game strategist.

As if to illustrate that point, Game 7 was a masterstroke of bad managing by Baker, who chose inconsistent 16-game loser Livan Hernandez, who’d been shelled in Game 3, as his starter over steady Kirk Rueter, who showed what a bad decision that was by tossing four innings of shutout relief after Hernandez was knocked out of the box in the third. Baker also hit for the slumping but still powerful Sanders with the nonhitting Goodwin in a situation where a home run would have tied the game. And going even further, the manager chose to have more than one speedy all-field, no-hit outfielder on his postseason roster while leaving off Damon Minor, a lumbering first baseman who also can’t hit big league pitching with any regularity, but can hit home runs, a useful thing, even if luck is required for it to happen.

But it didn’t matter. The Giants would never have gotten to Game 7 without Baker’s leadership all season. And consider the head-scratcher move of using Shawon Dunston as a designated hitter in Games 2 and 6, batting in place of a pitcher, Russ Ortiz, who is a significantly better hitter than Dunston is. That’s dumb. Except that Dunston hit a home run in Game 6 that would have won the World Series for the Giants if their bullpen hadn’t collapsed in a manner that couldn’t reasonably be blamed on Baker.

Baseball’s like that. The wrong moves hurt your team, except when they help your team. And the same goes for the right moves, only more so. The Angels lost Game 4 when Scioscia called on Rodriguez, who had been unhittable, and the Giants got a couple of hits and the winning run against him.

Scioscia will be the Angels’ manager next year, and they’ll have a tough job repeating as champions, because they play in the game’s toughest division and because lightning doesn’t strike twice. The Angels have solid pitching and some good players — Anderson, World Series MVP Troy Glaus, who won Game 6, Tim Salmon and maybe Adam Kennedy — but they also have a lot of weaknesses, particularly up the middle, where David Eckstein isn’t a legitimate shortstop and strong fielding catcher Bengie Molina and center fielder Darin Erstad don’t hit.

Baker is baseball’s most glamorous free agent manager. His relationship with the Giants has grown rocky, and the local criticism that will surely greet his World Series game management will probably aggravate him the way similar yakking did in 2000, the last time his contract was up, when he almost left following a playoff loss to the New York Mets. The chic speculation is that Baker will end up managing in Seattle, where he’d match wits with Scioscia, his old teammate, all year long in the American League West.

If their teams bump heads half as entertainingly as the Angels and Giants did this October, it’ll be a fun year out West, even if the rest of the country isn’t interested.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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