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Angels set out to end Sox's ALDS hex

Angels set out to end Sox's ALDS hex

There will be no need to send out a search party looking for the storyline in this American League Division Series. This event comes with a built-in plot. No assembly is required.

On one hand we have the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. They have won five division titles in the last six seasons. In those five championship seasons the Angels have averaged more than 95 victories per year. In this era of increased parity, this is as close to regular-season domination as any single franchise is going to get.

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And then we meet the other half of this ALDS argument, the Boston Red Sox. And those people have meant postseason problems for the Angels. Not a problem, but the problem.

As good as the Angels obviously have been in recent seasons, the Red Sox have been an October riddle that they have not solved. The central issue for this Division Series -- which will start on Wednesday or Thursday on TBS -- is whether that can change. And what would most likely make it change would be an Angels offense that scores enough runs to win.

In 2004, the division-winning Angels met the Wild Card Red Sox in the ALDS. The Angels were swept. Those Red Sox went to achieve a precedent-shattering comeback against the Yankees in the AL Championship Series, and then they swept the Cardinals in the World Series.

In 2007 another ALDS between the Red Sox and the Angels, both division winners in this case, was swept by Boston. Again, the Red Sox eventually emerged as the World Series champions.

In 2008, the Angels again came to the ALDS as winners of the AL West, while the Red Sox were the AL Wild Card team. This time, Boston won in four games.

That is a 9-1 edge for the Red Sox over three postseason series. It is a remarkable margin, especially given the fact that the Angels had home-field advantage in two of the three series. (The Angels also lost a seven-game ALCS to the Red Sox in 1986, but we'll keep the discussion in the current millennium.)

The degree of difficulty facing the Red Sox in the postseason is obvious. Boston is the only franchise to have won two World Series in the new century. There may be an element of simple bad luck in the postseason matchups for the Angels. But there are other valid explanations.

In the last two postseason losses to Boston, the Angels simply have not had enough offense to win. They scored four runs in three games in 2007 and 13 runs in four games in 2008. They were banged up entering the 2007 postseason, but still, 17 runs in seven games will not be enough, even in the postseason where pitching generally rules.

Is this the October for the Angels, rather than the Red Sox? If regular-season performance stands for anything, and it should, the 2009 Angels are better positioned than their predecessors. By the most reasonable measurement, runs scored, this is by far the best offense the Angels have brought to the postseason in the last three years, ranking second in the AL in runs scored behind only the Yankees. Plus, the Halos set a club record for runs scored on the last Thursday of the season.

And Boston has by far the highest team ERA it has had coming into the last three postseasons. (Then again, so do the Angels, but at least some of that can be fairly attributed to early-season travail that ranged from a wave of pitching injuries to the tragic death of starter Nick Adenhart.)

This is a more diverse Angels offense than in previous years. The stolen base is still present -- they're third in the AL in the regular season. But this season the Angels were second in the league in on-base percentage, a dramatic improvement over an 11th-place finish in that category in 2008. Outfielder Bobby Abreu's influence is credited at least in part for the increased patience, and if he has that much positive influence, his next contract will be larger and longer than his current deal.

Against the improved Angels offense, the quality of the Red Sox's pitching will be the key variable. Among Red Sox starters, Josh Beckett, the ace of aces in the 2007 postseason, had back spasms late in the season. But if he is healthy, this is his generally his time. Lefty Jon Lester has been a consistent, reliable starter. Daisuke Matsuzaka was out for much of the season before returning late, in much better shape and in much better form on the mound than when he departed. Clay Buchholz has indisputable stuff but no postseason experience.

A Red Sox bullpen that was already stellar was further bolstered by the addition of Billy Wagner, which gave Boston another left-handed option. Jonathan Papelbon remains one of the game's best closers, and the group leading up to him has power arms and versatility.

This Angels offense will be more difficult to shut down than the 2007-08 versions, but given good health, Boston's pitching staff could still be capable of stopping anyone.

The Angels' pitching, after a truly difficult beginning, has rounded into much better form, so the overall team pitching stats may be somewhat misleading. In the rotation, Jered Weaver and John Lackey are sources of stability and the rest of the rotation has improved with the arrival of Scott Kazmir and the return to form of Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana.

The bullpen was hurt by the absence of Scot Shields, a setup mainstay of this staff, but in the second half, it also made strides. Kevin Jepsen, with little experience, but first-class stuff, has been particularly helpful, emerging as a solid eighth-inning option. Closer Brian Fuentes has been more hittable than the Angels would like, but he still has impressive save numbers.

The overall challenge for this Angels squad is to stretch its level of high-quality performance, which has typically functioned for six months, one month further into autumn. This is a very reasonable goal, for a highly successful franchise. But as usual, the Red Sox stand squarely in the Angels' way.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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