Familiar end to Angels' historic season

Familiar end to historic season

Another superb regular season -- the best in franchise history and in Major League Baseball -- was tempered by the Angels' elimination in the American League Division Series at the hands of the Boston Red Sox for the third time in five seasons.

By winning on the final day of the regular season, the Angels finished with a franchise-record and MLB-high 100 wins. Relatively healthy and rested after clinching the AL West title on Sept. 10, they seemed primed for a big postseason run. But stunning losses in the first two games of the ALDS at home sent them to Boston needing a sweep to carry the series back to Anaheim.

The Angels won Game 3 in 12 innings at Fenway Park, largely on the strength of a Herculean performance by catcher Mike Napoli, who homered twice and scored the winning run on Erick Aybar's single. Then in Game 4, Torii Hunter's dramatic two-run single in the eighth inning tied the score and put the pressure on the Red Sox, but Boston prevailed, 3-2, to send the Angels home in disappointment yet again.

The season had begun with major question marks that were quickly replaced by exclamation points. John Lackey (triceps) and Kelvim Escobar (shoulder) opened the season on the disabled list, and Escobar would remain there for the entire season after undergoing surgery. Replacing their 37 wins from 2007 seemed impossible, but Joe Saunders and Ervin Santana blossomed in starting roles, each claiming All-Star Game berths along with closer Francisco Rodriguez.

Modifying his delivery to relieve pressure on his lower body, K-Rod began the season with painful ankles but gradually found good health -- and a remarkable number of leads to hold as the Angels became the Majors' best team in close games. By midseason, K-Rod was on pace to eclipse Bobby Thigpen's all-time saves record of 57, and sure enough, he reached 57 on Sept. 11 -- the day after the team clinched its fourth division title in five years. Two days later, K-Rod nailed down the record with a save against the Mariners, and he added four more, finishing with 62.

2008 Angels Leaderboard
Hitting
Average:1Howie Kendrick.306
Doubles:Torii Hunter37
Triples:Erick Aybar5
Home runs:Vladimir Guerrero27
Runs:Guerrero, Hunter85
RBIsGuerrero91
Stolen bases:Chone Figgins34
Pitching
Wins:Joe Saunders17
Losses:Jered Weaver10
ERA (starter):Saunders3.41
ERA (reliever):2Jose Arredondo1.62
Saves:3Francisco Rodriguez62

Lackey returned to anchor the rotation after missing six starts, and he would put together another quality season alongside Saunders, Santana, Jon Garland and Jered Weaver in a deep, talented rotation. Jose Arredondo's emergence as a weapon out of the bullpen was a factor in K-Rod's record run, along with the solid work of Scot Shields, Rodriguez's setup man.

On July 29, two days before the non-waiver Trade Deadline, the Angels rocked the sport by acquiring first baseman Mark Teixeira from the Braves in exchange for first baseman Casey Kotchman and Minor League pitcher Steve Marek. There was significant risk in the move, given that Teixeira would be eligible for free agency after the season and Kotchman had been one of the club's most valuable players offensively and defensively -- and was under club control for three more seasons.

Teixeira was a force for two exciting months, flourishing in front of Vladimir Guerrero in a potent offense that also featured leadoff catalyst Chone Figgins, productive Garret Anderson and Hunter, who excelled in the No. 5 spot and brought his seven-time Rawlings Gold Glove to center to solidify the defense.

With their solid play, Maicer Izturis and Aybar alleviated concerns about the loss of shortstop Orlando Cabrera, sent to the White Sox for Garland. But the Angels were weakened when Izturis -- arguably the team's most underrated player -- was lost for the season on Aug. 14 with thumb surgery. The team was 34-16 with Izturis at shortstop. Brandon Wood did a solid late-season job filling in with Izturis and Aybar sidelined, and Sean Rodriguez also performed capably with Howie Kendrick on the DL with hamstring issues.

Catching was a season-long strength, with defensive whiz Jeff Mathis and the power-hitting Napoli dividing duties.

Record: 100-62 (first place in AL West)

Defining moment: On July 29, hours after the Angels acquired Teixeira from the Braves, Lackey came within two outs of a no-hitter at Fenway Park, settling for a 6-2 win as the Angels were on their way to a three-game sweep of the Red Sox to finish the season series with eight wins in nine games against the defending World Series champions.

ANGELS TOP PERFORMANCES
4/7, LAA 6, CLE 4 -- Hunter's heroics
Torii Hunter lifts the Angels to a dramatic win with a walk-off grand slam.
Highlights: Watch
4/18, LAA 5, SEA 4 -- Hunter's clutch grab
Torri Hunter saves the game with his glove, robbing Richie Sexson to finish the game.
Highlights: Watch
4/26, DET 6, LAA 4 -- 2,000 for Vlad
Vladimir Guerrero collects his 2,000th hit of his career.
Highlights: Watch
6/28, LAD 1, LAA 0 -- No hits, but no win
Jered Weaver and Jose Arredondo combined to allow no hits in a 1-0 loss to the Dodgers.
Highlights: Watch
6/29, LAA 1, LAN 0 -- Lackey handles Dodgers
John Lackey tosses 8 2/3 scoreless innings against the Dodgers.
Highlights: Watch

What went right: With Lackey and Escobar starting the season on the DL, Saunders and Santana flourished in starting roles, answering major rotation questions. K-Rod overcame early issues with his ankles to set off on his record-setting campaign. The Angels were the best road team in the Majors (50-32) and were also the Majors' best in close games (61-28 in games decided by two or fewer runs). Hunter anchored the defense and added depth to the lineup, while Aybar and Izturis handled shortstop capably and Garland added depth to the rotation. Teixeira's arrival added a weapon in front of Guerrero, and Arredondo arrived to provide another bullpen weapon in front of K-Rod.

What went wrong: Injuries to middle infielders and Figgins once again created inconsistency in the lineup. Power remained an issue: the opposition produced two more extra-base hits than the Angels over the course of the season, and that was a big reason why the Red Sox prevailed in the ALDS, even though they were outhit for average. Despite Figgins' 34 steals and 19 by Hunter, the team did not run as effectively as in seasons past.

Biggest surprise: Arredondo came out of nowhere to emerge as a hammer in the seventh inning, replacing a struggling Justin Speier in front of Shields and K-Rod. Arredondo's .190 opponent's batting average was the best on the staff, and he allowed only 65 baserunners in 61 innings.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.