ALCS: Angels vs. Twins
The Great Unknown
Francisco Rodriguez is too young to legally drink alcohol but good enough to be bathed in it. So there he was last Saturday, dripping champagne and beer from head to toe in the Anaheim Angels' clubhouse, only 17 days removed from his first major league game, one year from Class A ball and four years from leaving Caracas, Venezuela, and his 13 younger brothers and sisters to become a pro baseball player at age 16. The Angels had not only won a postseason series for the first time in their 41-year history but had also brought a resounding end to the mythopoeia about the modern New York Yankees dynasty, embarrassing the defending American League champs three games to one in the Division Series.
Rodriguez, a 20-year-old righthander who didn't have a major league win entering the playoffs, came on in relief in each Anaheim triumph, earning two victories. He imposed his will on the series as surely as a hot branding iron makes its mark on the backside of a steer. In 19 at bats against his nasty repertoire of fastballs and sliders, New York hitters struck out eight times, missing 16 of the 35 pitches they swung at. "I am still young," says Rodriguez. "But when you have a big heart and big stuff, anything is possible."
Rodriguez, brought up from the Triple A Salt Lake Stingers on Sept. 17, is largely unknown, even on his own club. The name tag above his locker reads RODRIGUES. But he's not the only surprise in the American League Championship Series, which was scheduled to begin on Tuesday. The Minnesota Twins, part of commissioner Bud Selig's contraction plan last winter, joined the Angels in the coming-out party with a 5-4 win over the Oakland A's on Sunday in Game 5. The A's again proved to be pretenders to the Yankees' throne. Over the last three seasons they have played six postseason games with champagne on standby and lost every one of them.
Without New York and Oakland, the American League Championship Series will be contested by two teams that are unwanted by their owners and unloved by the television networks but that play baseball with similar attention to detail. Considering the way both clubs emphasize defense and move runners along, this is a connoisseur's series.
The Angels, for instance, finished off the creaky Yankees in Game 4 with an eight-run fifth inning in which they had 10 hits in a 23-pitch span against three hurlers. In the series Anaheim, the league's toughest team to whiff, batted .344 with two strikes in the count, and fouled off 107 pitches. "They scratch and claw until they get a pitch they can hit, and then they don't miss," said New York's Mike Mussina, who gave up four runs in four innings of a Game 3 loss. "If they continue to play like this, they're going to win everything. They are one hot team."
Oakland first baseman Scott Hatteberg says of the Twins and the Angels, "They're very similar teams, clones in fact" They faced each other nine times in the regular season, with Minnesota winning five and each club scoring 43 runs. "There's no standout guy in either of their lineups, but top to bottom they're battlers and overachievers. And both teams have good bullpens. It'll be an interesting series. I couldn't pick it."
The Twins haven't played the Angels since July 16, when Rodriguez had recently been promoted to Triple A. Anaheim general manager Bill Stoneman said he didn't summon Rodriguez until after the minor league season had concluded because "the guys we had here were doing the job, and we wanted him to work and develop." With fellow power pitcher Troy Percival behind him, Rodriguez gives Anaheim the ability to lock down games after six innings the way the Yankees did with Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland in the mid-1990s.
Says one scout, "He's the secret weapon, the X factor in the series. The Twins have never seen him. If he's throwing that slider and the Twins stay aggressive, he's going to eat them alive."
It was only four years ago that Rodriguez was pitching for a Venezuelan amateur team at a tournament near Chicago. Several major league clubs offered him a contract, but the Angels outbid everybody, including the Yankees, with a $900,000 signing bonus. Asked if he claimed the game ball or another souvenir from his first win, in Game 2, Rodriguez shook his head and then pointed to his heart. "It will be in here," he said. "I don't need a ball for that."