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Dan Shaughnessy

Shades of October on an August night

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was over quickly back in 2004. Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez shut down the Angels in the first two playoff games in Anaheim, then David Ortiz hit the walkoff homer against Jarrod Washburn at Fenway.

The Red Sox went on to make some baseball history and the first round of '04 became a mere footnote when it was followed by the apocalyptic series against the Yankees.

Three years later, it's looking like the Red Sox and Angels might meet again 'neath the cover of October skies. Boston and Los Angeles/California/Anaheim own the top two records in baseball, and there's every likelihood that the road to the 2007 World Series will lead through both Fenway Park and the ballpark by the 57 Freeway in the Republican heart of Orange County.

"I don't want to talk about any playoffs yet," manager Mike Scioscia before his Angels dismantled the Red Sox, 10-4, last night. "But I'm excited about the makeup of our ball club."

He should be. The Angels are probably one big bat away from being a 100-win team. Their starting pitching is somewhat shredded at the moment, but the Halos are a handful, as they demonstrated in back-to-back victories against the Sox this week. They rank third in the American League in hitting and pitching. They lead the league in stolen bases. In Scot Shields, Justin Speier, and Francisco Rodriguez, they have a late-game bullpen crew on a par with any in baseball. They swing at everything and put pressure on your defense.

They provided a good exhibiton against the Sox last night. They ran on pitches, took the extra base, forced bobbles and bad decisions, and executed a perfect suicide squeeze.

It was a relatively tame 1-1 game in the fourth when Scioscia sent Maicer Izturis from first on a 1-0 pitch to Jeff Mathis. Izturis scored easily on Mathis's double.

Then came the deluge. The Sox had just taken a 4-2 lead when the Angels came to bat in the fifth. The first five Angels reached base. Chone Figgins led off with a walk and stole second. After an error by Julio Lugo, a bobble by Kevin Youkilis, and an off-the-mark throw by Dustin Pedroia, Scioscia went for the suicide squeeze with Mathis at bat. The bunt was perfect, Gary Matthews Jr. scored standing up, and Manny Delcarmen was unable to field the ball. Suddenly, the Angels were on top, 7-4, and the Sox looked confused.

"They're so aggressive in all aspects of the game," manager Terry Francona said after the loss. "When you play them, the game is at a fast pace, and if you're not ready for them, they can run you into mistakes. It's not a very relaxing game when you play them. We caught them at a good time earlier this year."

The Angels were swept at Fenway in April. The scores were 10-1, 8-0, and 7-2. Straight sets. Embarrassing almost.

"We didn't have Figgins then," said Scioscia. "Since then, some of our younger guys have gotten experience. We just didn't have any offensive chemistry then. It was probably our toughest stretch."

They've got it going now. The top five batters -- Figgins, Orlando Cabrera (remember him?), Vladimir Guerrero, Garret Anderson, and Matthews -- are a force. They don't work counts or take a lot of pitches or hit a lot of homers. But they beat you.

"It's not our organization's philosophy to turn everybody into a hacker," said Scioscia, "but you have to look at the skill set everybody has. With some guys, it would take away their production if we told them to work the count."

Get used to seeing the Angels. The Sox play Los Angeles again tonight, and there'll be four more at Fenway next weekend. Then the playoffs, of course. There's even speculation the Sox and Angels will open the season in Tokyo in 2008, which could be quite dramatic if it's a rematch of the 2007 AL Championship Series.

Francona made light of Angel playoff talk, chiding one reporter for raising the subect: "Yeah, we're out here to send a message. I don't think we're trying to concern ourselves with the playoffs."

Still, several Angels talked about a "playoff atmosphere" after Monday's 4-2 win.

"I've never been in a playoff game," Mathis told the Los Angeles Times. "But I assume that's what it feels like right there."

Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, one of the more superstitious people on the planet, didn't want any part of playoff talk when he was spotted in front of the dugout before the game.

"There should be punishment for journalists who get carried away with unbridled optimism at this time of the year," said Lucchino (and this was before the once double-digit lead was whittled to five games). "And I'm talking about the same people who were saying the Yankees were out of it at the All-Star break. All this talk is premature."

Scioscia said, "Our stadium has a pretty good atmosphere every night, but it's heightened when Boston and New York are here. There's more pitch-to-pitch excitement."

It was there again last night. The feel of October on a warm night in August. Calling all the Angels.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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