And, so, the Los Angeles Angels and Boston Red Sox, destined as no other two teams to reach this oasis of October, step onto the most precarious rung of the postseason ladder.

In a season of ebb and flow and turbulence, the Angels and the Red Sox have been rocks. Los Angeles sat atop the American League West for 170 days, taking up permanent residence on April 25. Boston was as enduring, leading the East Division for 169 days, and every day since April 18.

Come Game 1, none of that will mean anything. Correction: It means one of them will start going down Heartbreak Highway.

There is something relentless about the five-game American League Division Series that begins with right-handed aces John Lackey and Josh Beckett dueling in Fenway Park. The entire series is played in an air of urgency.

Yet that means there's also something cruel about it: Ouster, being turned away from the pearly gates to the rest of October, is sudden and painful. A quick dismissal of six months of excellence.

Of course, both the Angels and Red Sox gladly reach for those straws, not knowing who will grab the short one.

They step onto this stage as equals in so many ways, and perhaps for the first time ever.

Most obviously, both came down the stretch with significant health concerns, those of the Angels a bit graver.

Vladimir Guerrero was still trying to return to the outfield for the first time since Sept. 4, when he incurred tendinitis in his triceps. He's gotten some key knocks as the DH in the interim, but manager Mike Scioscia knows he's got a different player when Guerrero wears a mitt.

"His productivity has not been quite the same at DH," said Scioscia, who would also like to plug Juan Rivera into the DH spot if Guerrero can vacate it.

There is also anxiety about Gary Matthews Jr., even if he shows up on game day in the pink of health. Because of a right-ankle sprain and later a wrenched right knee, Matthews entered the season's last weekend with only 12 at-bats in three weeks.

Boston's Terry Francona has his own reasons for not letting the team trainer out of his sight. First baseman Kevin Youkilis doctored a wrist bruised by a Chien-Ming Wang pitch down to the wire, and center fielder Coco Crisp was fighting to beat a mysterious virus infection that left him dizzy.

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Of course, Francona could deal with those uncertainties a lot better after welcoming back Manny Ramirez from a month's absence with a strained side muscle.

Of all of the players whose status is up on the air, the most critical may be Matthews, an outfielder with terrific instincts able to handle Fenway Park's center field adventureland. His replacement would be Reggie Willits, who started one game there during the Angels' four-game series in August, and, frankly, appeared lost.

A Fenway Park condition with which the Angels are quite familiar, incidentally. Since 2000, they have gone 14-21 in The Fens. Furthermore, in five historical postseason games there, the Halos are 1-4.

American League Division Series schedule
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs. Boston Red Sox
Date
Time
Site
Network
Wed., Oct. 36:30 p.m. Fenway Park TBS
Fri., Oct. 58:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
Sun. Oct. 73 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 89:30 p.m.Angel Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 108:30 p.m.Fenway Park TBS
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland Indians
Date
Time
Site
Network
Thu., Oct. 46:30 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Fri., Oct. 55 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
Sun. Oct. 76:30 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Mon. Oct. 86 p.m. Yankee Stadium TBS
*Wed. Oct. 105 p.m. Jacobs Field TBS
* If necessary. All times ET.

Scioscia resolutely waves off the track record, repeating one of his mantras: "I think there is a lot being said about how we play in Boston. The bottom line is how we play the game."

At least, unlike in those two previous postseason encounters, the Angels are no longer lost in the Red Sox' shadow. The 1986 Championship Series pitted Boston's legacy against the novelty of the Angels, who nonetheless gave it a good, seven-game fight. In the 2004 Division Series, the Angels were essentially emaciated by Scioscia's decision to boot Jose Guillen off the team.

Now they are on equal footing, including their run-ups to this series.

They were the first two of the eight teams to secure postseason berths. The Red Sox beat the crowd on Sept. 22. The following day, on the eve of the much-anticipated release of the video game Halo 3, it was Halo 3-out-of-4, the Angels clinching their third West title in four years.

Thereafter, the teams had different priorities. Scioscia seemed bent on resting his troops -- even to the extent of not going full-bore for the home-field advantage that loomed invaluable to a club with the Majors' best home record (54-27). Francona could not let up, not with a division flag still to keep away from the Yankees.

In that regard, the Red Sox may have arrived at the Second Season with a sharper edge -- but the days off in-between seasons tend to dull that.

Having both teams clinch early did away with a lot of the uncertainties surrounding their respective pitching rotations. Francona has set up Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and Curt Schilling to follow Beckett, which Scioscia will counter with Kelvim Escobar, Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders.

As the mad scramble of the incredible resolution of the regular season gives way to the mad dash of the postseason, the urgency of this Division Series is further dialed up by a belief that naturally will remain unspoken, but is nonetheless true:

Both teams may regard this as the biggest obstacle to the World Series: The Red Sox went 5-2 against Cleveland and see so much of the Yankees, they're always willing to take their chances with them; and the Angels held their own while splitting 10 games with the Indians, and always like their karma against the Bombers.