10/03/2004 8:36 PM ET
Full circle to the winner's circle
Angels overcome injuries, controversy to win the West
By Doug Miller / MLB.com
|"This is it," Darin Erstad said. "Doesn't matter who we're playing." (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
ANAHEIM -- They entered the season with a huge payroll and even bigger expectations.
The 2004 Angels were Arte's Angels, the team that owner Arte Moreno bought and re-energized with new blood to get back to the World Series after winning it in 2002 and falling into injury-laden oblivion in 2003.
Moreno staged a winter whirlwind of wheeling and dealing, signing free agents Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar to shore up the starting pitching, then nabbing outfielder Jose Guillen and the biggest prize of the offseason, superstar slugger Vladimir Guerrero.
The roster was loaded with speed, situational hitting and power, the starting rotation was deep and able, and the bullpen was still the best in the American League.
On paper, America was tabbing the Angels as the Yankees of the West and Moreno as their Steinbrenner, and the AL West division title was deemed a mere afterthought.
Ultimately, the pundits were correct for once, but the Angels had a long, hard road to that reality, and the obstacles they jumped over to make the playoffs made it a lot tougher than anyone thought it would be.
"Nobody thought it would be easy," shortstop David Eckstein said. "But we had a lot of faith in this club, and we knew we'd be OK. We knew once we got healthy that we had the talent to get to the playoffs."
But for the second straight year, the injuries mounted. And mounted.
Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, Adam Kennedy, Bengie Molina, Troy Percival and Jarrod Washburn all missed at least a month, and heading down the stretch the team lost Salmon and Kennedy for the rest of the year.
Glaus came back in September after missing four months because of shoulder surgery and can no longer play third base.
But trailing in the division by three games with nine to go and faced with a daunting season-ending road trip through Texas and Oakland, the Angels and their mishmash of minor league callups and players out of their usual positions stepped up.
They won seven of their next eight to lock up their first division title since 1986.
"This is a team game," said Glaus. "It took all 25 guys for us to get here. Well, in our case, it took between 30 and 40."
And now the roster will be back down to 25, and the first stop is back home in Anaheim, where the Angels will entertain the Boston Red Sox to open the best-of-five AL Division Series.
The Angels know the challenges here.
They went 4-5 in nine tension-filled games against the Red Sox this year, and the last time the two teams met, in early September, the Red Sox had their way with the Angels in a three-game sweep in Fenway Park.
"We weren't playing well at the time and they were playing extremely well at the time," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "It didn't matter where we were playing. When we were playing well at home, we matched up very well with them."
Another thing the Angels did extremely well this year was play on the road, with a 47-34 record that ranked first in the AL.
Winning on the road is one thing to overcome, but crumbling team chemistry is another.
The on-field antics, clubhouse conflict and subsequent suspension of Guillen eight days before the season ended could have torn the Angels apart, but it might have forged them closer together.
Guillen was kicked off the team after he showed up Scioscia by throwing a tantrum on the field when he was pulled for a pinch-runner in the final homestand against the A's.
He won't be on the postseason roster and his teammates don't seem to mind.
"With all due respect to Jose, we're not thinking about it anymore," Erstad said. "We've got to worry about winning games right now."
"We've moved on," Anderson added.
And they've moved on with the help of their Most Valuable Player candidate, Guerrero, who hit six home runs and drove in 11 runs in the Angels' pivotal six-game stretch in Texas and Oakland to help the Angels get to where they are today.
"Guerrero put us on his back, flat and simple," Percival said. "Unlike any great player I've ever seen. He shouldered us."
Starting Tuesday, the Angels will shoulder the burden of another October, and it's something they can't contain their excitement about.
"This is it," Erstad said. "Doesn't matter who we're playing. I could care less about that.
"This is the ultimate. It's what you play for. Let's go."
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.