Hunter’s aim was true
ANAHEIM, Calif. - Torii Hunter was the one who called out his mates on that September night in Boston. He said that when they played the Red Sox they had to play with, to paraphrase, some guts.
“You just try your best and have some heart about yourself and go out there and play the game the best way you know how,’’ Hunter explained. “That’s all I said.’’
He’s always been a very good talker, but he’s also a pretty good doer, too, and last night he led by example when he launched a three-run homer onto the rocks in left-center to propel the Angels to a 5-0 victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
“I was just trying to help my boys out, get ’em going,’’ Hunter said.
Hunter is also the one who said Tuesday that he didn’t want to talk about last year, or any year other than this year. It didn’t matter what happened between these teams in 2004, 2007 or 2008, and it surely didn’t matter what happened in 1986. What mattered, he said, was that the Angels were a new and improved team and they would demonstrate just how good they are in this series.
A Game 1 victory is helpful, but by no means definitive. The Red Sox were not humiliated. They were just beaten. John Lackey outpitched Jon Lester. Hunter had the one hit in the game that really mattered. And that was that.
Or was it? One of the recurrent themes we’ve been hearing these past few days is just how much of an effect Bobby Abreu has had on the Angels’ lineup. His rare combination of patience and selective aggressiveness has been studied by the rest of them. That’s what they all say. Meanwhile, he walked four times last night and the third was just ahead of Hunter’s home run. It’s something to think about.
Lester was a good pitcher through four innings, but in order to come out with a W he was going to have to be a very good pitcher for a lot longer than that, for this was Lackey’s night. Angels manager Mike Scioscia seems to have unbounded faith in the 6-foot-6-inch righthander, and his confidence was rewarded when Lackey showed up with his A game on the right night, limiting the Sox to four hits in 7 1/3 innings.
“Lot of life on his fastball,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona. “Threw enough breaking balls, we had to respect that, and he was able to locate the fastball again with two different directions. He was good. He was real good.’’
Lackey was first presented to the American public seven years ago when circumstances dictated that he get the ball for a Game 7 World Series start against the San Francisco Giants. He pitched without fear, and that set him off on what has been a solid B-student career in which he has had at least 10 wins in each of the last seven seasons. He’s not often a Cy Young threat, but he is reliable.
But though the Angels have been regular playoff participants throughout the decade, he had not been able to get another postseason win until last night.
He was sharp from the beginning, getting first-pitch strikes on the first eight Red Sox batters and retiring them all before Alex Gonzalez singled to center with two away in the third. When Jacoby Ellsbury reached base on a rare catcher’s interference, there was something of a two-out threat brewing. But Dustin Pedroia flied to right.
And that was the extent of the damage until the sixth, when he had a sudden control lapse, throwing seven straight balls while walking Victor Martinez and falling behind Kevin Youkilis, 3 and 0. Lackey found himself, however, getting back to 3 and 2 on Youkilis before getting him on a interesting fielder’s choice. Youk had chopped one near the third base bag, and Chone Figgins just beat a hustling Pedroia (on base via a single) to the bag, ending the inning.
Lester had done well to get through the first four innings unscathed. He left the bases loaded in the third by striking out Vladimir Guerrero on a 95-mile-per-hour heater. Well, yes, Vladi did help him out by swinging at a pitch up around his nose, but it’s not like that’s the first time in Vladi’s career anything like that’s happened.
An inning later, Howie Kendrick reached base with two outs on a controversial error charged to Gonzalez, who, after making a nice sliding stop, threw wide to first, where Youkilis thought he had made the tag. First base umpire CB Bucknor disagreed. It didn’t matter in the end because Lester blew another 95-m.p.h. fastball by Jeff Mathis.
There was immediate trouble in the fifth when Erick Aybar, a No. 9 guy hitting .312, ripped a double inside the third base bag to start the inning. Figgins, the quintessential Scioscia Angel, sacrificed him to third. That awesomely annoying Abreu guy worked Lester for a walk, and that brought up Hunter, who came here at great expense a year ago to be a Gold Glove center fielder, a productive batter, and most of all a leader.
He took a called strike, and then found a Lester offering he liked. Baseball players like to talk about “putting a good swing’’ on the ball. This one sounded great and looked even better. It was obvious by the flight of the ball the only question was whether it would land on the adjacent Pomona Freeway. It fell a bit short of that, but it cleared the fence about 30 feet to the left of the 400-foot sign in center, landing high on the rocks in that theme park of an outfield they’ve got out there.
The Hunter homer caught everyone’s attention, but the Abreu walk stayed in Tito’s head, too.
“Bobby’s at-bat was huge,’’ Francona sighed. “We were actually playing back [with a man on third and one out], giving a run, trying to stay out of a big inning. But Bobby won’t give in.’’
“Not just tonight, but all year, he’s helped us beyond what the numbers show,’’ said Scioscia. “He’s not always going to go out there and get four walks, but it’s the plate discipline he has.’’
The Angels got two more pad runs in the eighth off Ramon Ramirez and Takashi Saito, but they were unnecessary. Torii Hunter had spoken, and the Angels are up, 1-0. Like the man says, who cares about last year?
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.