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The Narrative Of The 2002 MLB Season

The Anaheim Angels had gone through their fair share of heartbreak. They blew comfortable ALCS series leads in both 1982 and 1986. They coughed up AL West leads in 1985 and 1994 that kept them out of the playoffs altogether. Finally, in the 2002 MLB season, everything came together for the Halos, and they won a dramatic World Series title.

Anaheim’s best everyday player was outfielder Garrett Anderson. With a .306 batting average, 29 home runs and 123 RBIs, Anderson placed fourth in the AL MVP voting. Third baseman Troy Glaus hit 30 homers and drove in 111 runs. Darrin Erstad was steady in centerfield and at the top of the lineup. The starting rotation was anchored by Jarrod Washburn and his 18 wins, while the bullpen had Troy Percival racking up 40 saves with a 1.92 ERA. The Angels didn’t have some of the star power their competitors had, but they were well-balanced, scoring the fourth-most runs in the American League and posting the second-best staff ERA.

Within the AL West, it was the Oakland A’s who had the star power. Miguel Tejada hit .308, drove in 131 runs and homered 34 times, all the while playing some good shortstop. Tejada won the MVP award. Eric Chavez was at third base with 34 homers and 109 RBIs. Jermaine Dye popped 24 home runs in right field. And the starting pitching was dynamic—Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder combined to win 57 games. Zito’s 23-5 record and 2.75 ERA won him the Cy Young Award.

Anaheim and Oakland were joined in the AL West race by Seattle, who was coming off a historic 116-win regular season and led by Ichiro Suzuki. It was the Mariners who went to the early lead, while the A’s struggled in the early going. Even by the All-Star break, Seattle was up three games on Anaheim, five on Oakland, and the A’s were also 3 ½ off the pace for what was then just a single wild-card berth.

It was in mid-August that the race in both this division and for the wild-card made a dramatic shift. Oakland ripped off a historic 20-game winning streak and moved into the AL West lead. Seattle began to fade. The Mariners would still win 93 games, but in this context, it wasn’t enough. By mid-September, Seattle had faded, and Anaheim and Oakland were both in position to comfortably make the playoffs. With 103 wins, the A’s took the division title, while the Angels’ 99 victories made them the wild-card.

The New York Yankees were the powerhouse of baseball, with four consecutive American League pennants. They had won three straight World Series titles from 1998-2000 and came within a run of making it four straight the prior October. They added Jason Giambi to the fold and the new first baseman hit 41 homers and drove in 122 runs. Alfonso Soriano played second base and drilled 39 bombs with 102 ribbies. Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada combined to knock in 201 more runs. The Yankees had the best offense in the league.

New York’s pitching was good by most standards—fourth in the league—but that was a little below what they had been accustomed to in recent seasons. The Boston Red Sox, with Pedro Martinez and Derek Lowe each winning 20 games, led the AL East at Memorial Day and were within two at the All-Star break. But the Red Sox collapsed in the late summer, fading from both the division and wild-card races. The Yankees cruised home with an easy September.

The AL Central had a new sheriff in town. The Cleveland Indians had won six of the previous seven division crowns, but the Tribe faded this year and the Minnesota Twins stepped into the breach. Jacque Jones and Torri Hunters were both good outfielders and all-around offensive players. The bullpen duo of J.C. Romero setting up and Eddie Guadardo closing the door was as good as anyone. By the All-Star break, Minnesota had a 7 ½ game lead and they were not challenged the rest of the way.

The National League races had a similar dynamic to the AL, with three good teams in the West. That included the defending World Series champion Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Francisco Giants and their now-reigning single-season home run king Barry Bonds, fresh off his 73-homer (PED fueled?) 2001 season. Bonds’ home run totals dropped to “only” 46 this time around, but he still batted .370 and won another MVP award. Jeff Kent racked up numbers of .313, 37 homers and 108 RBIs. A well-balanced pitching staff had lights-out closer Robb Nenn at the end of games.

Arizona had the stars in the pitching rotation. Randy Johnson won 24 games with a 2.32 ERA. Curt Schilling won 23 more and his ERA was 3.23. Johnson and Schilling, heroes from the previous October, finished 1-2 in the NL Cy Young voting. The offense wasn’t great, but with Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley each hitting 25-plus home runs, and the lineup as a whole leading the league in walks, it was more than enough with Johnson and Schilling regularly taking their turn.

For the first half of the season though, it was the Los Angeles Dodgers who led the way. Odalis Perez and Hideo Nomo keyed the third-best pitching in the National League. Shawn Green ripped 42 homers and drove in 114 runs. When the league converged on Milwaukee for the All-Star Game, it was Los Angeles was up 2 ½ on Arizona and 4 ½ on San Francisco. The division was also positioned to get the wild-card slot.

Speaking of that All-Star Game in Milwaukee—it proved to be historic for reasons that most people would prefer to forget. After 11 innings, the game was tied 7-7. But both benches were empty. Rather than push players too hard in an exhibition, the game was simply called a tie.

The league’s response was even more regrettable than the outcome itself. In the interests of getting players to care more about the game, MLB adopted a policy of giving homefield advantage in the World Series to whichever league won the All-Star Game. This ridiculous rule that held sway through 2016 had its origins with what happened in 2002.

Arizona heated up after the All-Star break, and by the time Labor Day rolled around, the Diamondbacks had a six-game lead. The Dodgers were still plus-two on the Giants for the wild-card. In early September, San Francisco pushed past L.A. for the wild-card lead and kept pressing Arizona for division honors. Both races stayed up in the air until the final weekend, but on the final Friday, Los Angeles finally fell by the wayside, leaving the playoff teams settled. The Diamondbacks made the division crown official the following day.

There was a rising star in St. Louis by the name of Albert Pujols. Playing both first base and left field, Pujols was the runner-up to Bonds in the MVP tally with 34 homers, a .314 batting average and 124 RBIs. Jim Edmonds had a big bat in centerfield, popping 28 dingers and hitting .311. Matt Morris was a rotation anchor with 17 wins. The Cardinals got a test from the Cincinnati Reds. St. Louis held a four-game lead going into September and then gradually expanded the margin before clinching with room to spare.

The NL East belonged to Atlanta in this era and 2002 was no different. The Braves again churned out the best pitching in the game. The trio of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and Kevin Millwood combined to win 52 games. John Smoltz switched from the rotation to the bullpen and merely racked up 55 saves, finishing 3rd in the Cy Young voting. The offense, even with good years from Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones, was subpar. But in a weak division, it didn’t stop Atlanta from being 17 games up September.

Any thoughts of a repeat World Series winner went by the boards quickly. St. Louis and Arizona met in a rematch of NLDS battle that had gone to the ninth inning of Game 5 in 2001. The ’02 edition zipped by a little quicker. The Cardinals hit Diamondback pitching for twenty runs in three games, sweeping the defending champs out.

Any thoughts of a fifth straight Yankee pennant also went by the boards quickly. New York’s pitching went from “less than what they were used to” in the regular season to simply “awful” in the postseason. Every game with the Angels was a slugfest. And while New York won the opener, Anaheim rallied to win the next three. The combined final score of the four-games was 31-25 for the Angels. The American League would have a new champion.

Oakland was looking to finally get past the ALDS round, after heartbreaking Game 5 losses to New York the prior two seasons. But even though the opponent this time was Minnesota, the end result was the same. The A’s won two of the first three but were blown out in Game 4 and then lost a 5-4 decision in the decisive fifth game.

The San Francisco-Atlanta matchup had a similar dynamic. The Braves took a 2-1 series lead, before the Giant bats unloaded for an easy 8-3 win in Game 4, then won a tough Game 5 to advance.

San Francisco went on the road to open the NLCS and grabbed two wins in St. Louis to put themselves in control of the series. All three games by the Bay were tight one-run affairs. But after losing Game 3, the Giants captured the fourth and fifth games to win their first pennant since 1989.

As for Anaheim, they again spotted their opponent a home win, and then took the series over. The Angels salvaged a split in the Twin Cities, won a tight 2-1 affair in Game 3, and then saw their bats unload. With easy wins in Games 4 & 5, the Angels were finally going to the World Series.

Thus, we had both an all-California Fall Classic, as well as an all-wild card Series. Once again, Anaheim lost Game 1. Their bats got rolling in Games 2 & 3, scoring a combined 21 runs to take the Series lead. After San Francisco’s 4-3 win in Game 4 tied the Series, the Giants then spent the better part of two games dominating. They won Game 5 by a 16-4 count and took a 5-0 lead into the seventh inning of Game 6.

It was time for one last turn of momentum. Anaheim scored three runs in the seventh, three more in the eighth, won 6-5 and forced a seventh game. In that Game 7, a bases-loaded double by Anderson in the third inning put the Angels in front 4-1, and the pitching took over from there. That’s where the game ended. And after a star-crossed history, the Anaheim Angels were finally the champions of baseball.