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Game 7: From rookies to heroes

Special to

Oct. 27
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The night before the playoffs opened, I said on "Baseball Tonight" that John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez would have to be key players for the Anaheim Angels to go far in the postseason.

As it turned out, the most incredible story of the postseason was not two, but three rookie pitchers -- Lackey, Rodriguez and Brendan Donnelly. They weren't on the Opening Day roster, but all three ended up being heroes when the Angels were crowned baseball's champions Sunday night.

The three rookies won eight of Anaheim's 11 postseason games, even though Donnelly made his debut on April 9, Lackey on June 24 and Rodriguez on Sept. 18, making him the early favorite for next season's American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Lackey was brilliant from the beginning. In the Division Series against the Yankees, the Angels were down 6-1 in Game 3. But Lackey came in and absolutely dominated them. He stopped the Yankees for three innings, allowing the Angels to come back and win the game. Then in Minnesota in the ALCS, Brad Radke was pitching a one-hitter through six innings in a scoreless game, but the Angels won the game because they scored in the seventh and Lackey threw seven shutout innings.

In Game 2 of the World Series, Lackey stopped the bleeding after Kevin Appier was shelled. He pitched 2 2/3 innings as the Angels came back and won 11-10. He also allowed three runs in five innings in Game 4. He was just as good as Kirk Rueter, even though the Angels didn't end up winning the game.

And then in Game 7, he buried Kenny Lofton, Rich Aurilia and Jeff Kent. He walked Lofton his third time up in the fifth inning with two outs and nobody on, but Lackey was able to limit any Barry Bonds situations. And when Bonds did hit off Lackey, he lined out and got an infield hit.

Meanwhile, Giants starter Livan Hernandez was pitching as if he were the rookie. He looked completely out of place. He got into a shouting match with home-plate umpire Jerry Crawford after the first inning. Then he got upset when he felt Bengie Molina had swung at a pitch on a check swing in the second inning. Did he go through? Probably. But Hernandez has to live with it, move on and bury Molina instead of giving up the double, which cost them a run. Once that happened, he couldn't stop the Angels and was gone without recording an out in the third inning.

Unlike Hernandez, Lackey stayed under control. And after Lackey, Donnelly gave the Angels two huge innings. I go back to the Game 1 of the postseason. The geniuses on radio and TV said Mike Scioscia didn't know how to manage because he had Donnelly instead of Troy Percival pitching to Bernie Williams, who hit the game-winning home run.

Well, the Angels just won the World Series because Scioscia did it his way. After Donnelly gave up the home run, he was back on the mound the next night and was such a key performer throughout the postseason. In 6 2/3 innings in the World Series, he didn't allow a run and didn't give up a hit until J.T. Snow doubled in the sixth inning. And Rodriguez was spectacular. He pitched a great eighth inning in which he put away Aurilia, Kent and then Santiago after walking Bonds before giving way to Percival in the ninth to close out the Series.

Offensively, Garret Anderson has been the Angels' RBI machine all season. He had eight singles and only three RBI going into Game 7. But he got a bases-loaded situation against Hernandez, took a great swing and delivered a bases-clearing double into the right-field corner.

Before Anderson, however, Darin Erstad lined a pitch that was about eight inches off the plate into left field after David Eckstein opened the inning with a single. Erstad had a sacrifice bunt in the first inning and made a great diving catch on a low line drive hit by David Bell in the fifth inning.

It was only appropriate that the final ball was hit to him. Erstad is the soul and the fire of the Angels, the player that teammates look up to as a leader. He had such a great Series, getting a hit in every game but one. The players know he is one of the greatest big-game performers in all of sports. Erstad won a national championship at Nebraska as a football player, but he is a great baseball player who happened to play football.

The Angels, though, won as a team. They are talented, having a solid player at almost every position. For them to return to the World Series next season will depend on their pitching. They will need to come close to how they pitched this season, when they were second in the American League in ERA behind Oakland and had the best bullpen ERA in the league.

The Giants played hard all seven games. Game 7 ended up being anticlimactic because Hernandez didn't pitch well. If he had, there would have been a chance for a classic, but he got the Giants into a hole. For a long time, Giants fans will wonder why Rueter didn't pitch Game 7 instead of Hernandez.

But if their bullpen had performed as it did during the second half, when it had the best ERA in baseball, they would have won Game 6 and Bonds would be the MVP. Bonds put on a great show -- going 8-for-17 with 13 walks and four home runs -- and was the dominant figure in the Series. Bonds needed a great postseason to get the burden off him, and he had one. Everyone has seen how great he is. His career postseason OPS is now about the same as Willie Mays' career regular-season OPS (.941).

Snow and David Bell each had a monster Series. But even though both teams were exhausted, the Giants may have been more tired because they had to come from so far back just to make the playoffs. At the same time, the Angels had to play a crazy brutal schedule down the stretch.

No one knows what will happen to the Giants next season because the futures of Dusty Baker and Jeff Kent are uncertain. They should end up being a different team. They have six players over 35 and only one positional regular under 30. There will be changes, but GM Brian Sabean has been great at making the right moves. Plus, the Giants still have the best player in the game.

The World Series was wonderful because it was wild, insane and totally unpredictable. The only predictable game ended being Game 7. Was it as great as last year's Series? No. As great as '75 or '86? No. Yet it went seven games, four decided by one run. It had great plays and individual performances from Bonds, Erstad, Glaus and others. It had tons of offense, which made for a lot of fun baseball. The Series was extraordinary to watch for those fortunate enough to witness it.

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