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Jackie MacMullan

Falling Angels need a win and a prayer

ANAHEIM, Calif. - I am a practical person who rarely jumps to unnecessary conclusions, but as I wind my way toward the home of the Almost Annihilated Angels of Anaheim, I can't think of one good reason to restrain myself from stating the obvious.

This series is over.

It is an age-old sports adage that decrees no playoff series truly begins until the home team has lost a game, which means the rest of you out there are perfectly reasonable to adopt a wait-and-see approach to proclamations of this nature. But the evidence is mounting that, just as they were swept by Boston in a best-of-five series in 2004, the Angels are overmatched.

Understand part of that has to do with the undeniable fact that Los Angeles is banged up. A healthy team that included Gary Matthews Jr. and Bartolo Colon on the playoff roster, and Garret Anderson without conjunctivitis, and Vladimir Guerrero with his usual ferociousness (which means he'd be toting a swing that should be registered with the local authorities as a lethal weapon) would be a formidable opponent, particularly with their adeptness at small ball. When the Angels find a way to get guys like Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick on base, they manufacture runs as expertly as any of their National League cousins.

It was fascinating to watch the Angels in motion in the eighth inning Friday night. Kendrick swiped both second and third base with such flair you half expected him to break for home at any moment. But here's the deal: while all those guys were flying around the base paths, reliever Jonathan Papelbon was locking in with his absolute best death stare and concentrating on one thing: shutting down the guy at the plate.

"They can't come home if I strike the guy out," said the big closer, which is exactly what he did to Figgins to end the inning.

The level of frustration has to be growing in the Los Angeles clubhouse. The Angels had Dice-K on the ropes Friday night with a chance to break the game open, and they couldn't deliver. Aside from the three runs they scratched out in the second, they have gone scoreless in the other 17 innings of this series.

Guerrero, who was already nursing a triceps injury, got plunked on the shoulder blade by an errant Manny Delcarmen pitch (his only errant one, by the way) and actually left the game in the eighth. Manager Mike Scioscia reported his outfielder was having trouble lifting his arm above his head, but you have to wonder why Vlad couldn't tough it out. This is the playoffs, no?

The slugger simply hasn't looked himself, even before he got dinged by the Delcarmen fastball. He has been perplexingly docile, resembling the Abominable Snowman after Yukon Cornelius and Herbie got hold of him.

You know, toothless.

After two games, Guerrero is batting a team-leading .286, but he has no home runs, no RBIs, and no walks. He is still waiting for his first extra base hit. It's not exactly a postseason calamity of A-Rod proportions, but the Angels needs him to put up some numbers - quickly.

As a team, the Angels are batting .167. Of their 11 hits, three have been doubles and the rest singles.

And now they get to face one of the best clutch pitchers in postseason history, Curt Schilling, on 11 days' rest. Schilling's numbers in the "second season" speak for themselves: 8-2 with a 2.06 ERA in 15 career starts.

Schill left Friday for the West Coast along with Game 4 (if needed) starter Josh Beckett. Schill needs no reminder he is literally pitching for his professional life, whether it's for a new contract with Boston or with another suitor.

We all know he lives for these moments.

I like his chances today.

We've been saying since April that pitching would be what would separate the Red Sox, and that includes the bullpen. But then Boston got a little greedy, coughed up a prospect to add veteran Eric Gagné, and its nice, little well-oiled machine of relievers went into a funk.

Gagné couldn't get it done, Hideki Okajima suddenly had a tired arm, and the redoubtable Papelbon actually had the audacity to prove he was human by blowing a couple of games in September.

But here we are in October, and Delcarmen, Okajima, and Papelbon have resumed their rightful place in the pitching order. So Daisuke Matsuzaka couldn't pitch deep into the night? No worries. The bullpen had his back.

(It was interesting, but not particularly surprising, to note that with the game tied, 3-3, in the ninth, manager Terry Francona had Mike Timlin warming in case of extra innings. For now it appears Gagné will be a very expensive postseason spectator.)

So tell me. What do the Red Sox have to complain about? Lost in the shuffle of Manny's Game 2 heroics was another timely hit by J.D. Drew, who staked the Sox a 2-0 lead in the first with a single up the middle. Ortiz is so hot in the playoffs (hits in seven straight postseason games with a .391 average), he may never get another pitch to hit.

In the wake of Friday's dramatic 6-3 win, Ortiz talked about the importance of the Red Sox keeping their foot on the Angels' throats. Boston, after all, epitomizes the all-time ultimate postseason disclaimer, having overcome a 3-0 series deficit to the stun the Yankees during the Sox' championship run in 2004.

If the Angels have that kind of fight in them, it certainly has escaped me. Their ace, John Lackey, is now 1-7 lifetime against the Red Sox. Friday night's starter, Kelvim Escobar, exhibited flashes of nasty stuff, but in two career postseason starts against Boston, he has an ERA of 8.64. Tonight's starter, Jered Weaver, is a tantalizing young talent, but it's unfair to pin your season on him, especially matched up against Schilling.

Scioscia acknowledged his team is not in a desirable position, but warned against writing the Angels off before they've had a chance to counter in their stadium.

"I've seen this team reel off offensively 8, 9, 10 straight games with manufacturing 6, 7, 8 runs," said Scioscia. "It can turn in a hurry."

As Los Angeles limped home, a local radio station here ran a promo imploring, "C'mon, Red Sox. Lay down. At least we know how to beat the Yankees."

It won't do them any good if they don't learn to beat Boston first.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at macmullan@globe.com.

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