St. Christopher swung from a silver chain around the neck of Anaheim Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. The coach grabbed the oval medal, with a likeness of the saint on one side and that of a ballplayer swinging a bat on the other, and tossed it over his shoulder so that it hung backward. It was time, Hatcher figured on Sunday, to turn around the momentum in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Minnesota Twins. It was time, as it would happen, to reverse 41 years of hellish Angels futility.
Anaheim trailed Minnesota 5-3 in the seventh inning when Angels first baseman Scott Spiezio dumped an opposite-field single into right. Every deluge begins with a drop. By the time the inning ended, 10 runs and nine more hits later, Anaheim had salted away its first pennant (they won the clincher 13-5), minted a reputation as one of the best rally teams in postseason history and paid homage to its patron saint.
Officially, St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, which has inspired generations of sojourners to wear his medal on expeditions. These Angels, though they may be owned by Disney and play on Katella Avenue, down the street from Disneyland, are rough-hewn characters—"a bunch of vagabonds, guys off the scrap pile and dirt-bags" is how Anaheim reliever Ben Weber describes himself and some of his team-mates. None of the seven players who joined the club after being released by other organizations (nor anyone else on the Anaheim roster, for that matter) has been to a World Series. This band of nomads made it to the majors by way of baseball boondocks such as Moose Jaw, Nashua and Taipei. Appropriately, they will be remembered for their relentlessness.
In roughly 18,000 half innings of postseason history before Oct. 5, only once had a team pounded 10 hits during its turn at bat, and that was in 1929, when the Philadelphia Athletics did it in the World Series. Then the Angels accomplished that feat twice in six games. First they ended the New York Yankees' season with a 10-hit fifth inning in Game 4 of the Division Series, scoring eight times to overcome a 2-1 deficit and win 9-5. Then there was that assembly-line clincher in the LCS against the Twins. "We ran into a buzz saw," Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said after the series. "Sometimes a team gets three hot guys, and they can carry you for months. But I've never seen nine guys get hot at the same time."
The Angels are the dripping faucet that keeps you awake at night. They drive opponents mad with an annoying medley of onomatopoeic hits: bloops, blips, dinks, dunks, chinks, flips and snorts. "Everything fell," Mientkiewicz said about that 10-run inning. "I was praying, Please hit a line drive right at me so we can get out of this."
To be exact, the rally began not with Spiezio's hit but in spring training. After a 2001 season in which Anaheim finished 75-87 and 41 games out of first place in the American League West—they scored fewer runs than any AL team except the Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays-Hatcher and manager Mike Scioscia emphasized the importance of situational hitting and making contact, even in Cactus League games. In April, unhappy with the hitters' progress, they instituted a fine system in which, for instance, players would have to cough up $100 if they didn't advance a runner from second base with no outs. Also, for the first two months of the season the coaching staff posted in the clubhouse a running tally of how each player fared in key situations, such as getting runners home from third with fewer than two outs.
"We stopped doing it because it was apparent that guys bought into the concept," bench coach Joe Maddon says. "We didn't need it anymore—it became part of the culture. It became cool to put the ball in play and advance runners."
In 2002 only three American League teams outscored Anaheim, which went 99-63 and won the wild card. No other major league club hit for a higher average (.282) or struck out fewer times (805) than the Angels, who were even tougher to get out in clutch situations. With runners in scoring position, they hit .290; with a runner on third and fewer than two outs, they hit .396. Maddon came up with another measurement of their effectiveness: jug runs. "As in going for the jugular," he says. "Those are the runs that put the game away, especially when you have the lead and you're hitting before the other team's last at bat—bottom of the eighth at home or top of the ninth on the road."
In the postseason Anaheim outscored the Yankees and the Twins by a combined 27-12 after the sixth inning. That Game 5 spark from Spiezio, a converted second baseman whom the Oakland A's didn't re-sign after the 1999 season, was followed by a single from catcher Bengie Molina. Scioscia then asked second baseman Adam Kennedy to bunt, even though the ninth-place hitter had already smashed two homers. Kennedy fouled off one bunt, whereupon Scioscia took off the sacrifice because of the aggressive posture of the Twins' corner infielders.
On an 0-and-2 pitch, southpaw reliever Johan Santana, who did not yield a home run to a lefthanded hitter all season, hung a breaking ball that Kennedy lashed with his awkward, looping cut. (Even though he hits few home runs—23 in 1,652 career major league at bats before the postseason—he swings with a pronounced uppercut.) "Our reports said his swing was unorthodox, but that it gets the job done," says Anaheim general manager Bill Stoneman, who acquired Kennedy from St. Louis in March 2000.