The Anaheim Angels can thank heaven that center fielder Darin Erstad made those two fabulous catches to rob the Giants' Rich Aurilia of a pair of triples, once in the first inning, then again in the second inning, in Game 5 of the World Series.

Otherwise, San Francisco would have scored 20 runs Thursday night, instead of just 16. "Twenty" is such an ugly number, don't you think? So hard to forget, and just a tad embarrassing, even for a franchise with the Angels' checkered history. After waiting 41 years to reach a Series, who wants to break the record of the '36 New York Giants for most runs allowed in a Series game (18).

Please, don't play Tony Bennett's recording of "San Francisco" when Angels southpaw Jarrod Washburn is around. He might get ill. On this night, he left his ERA in San Francisco.

The Angels can still save face after this 16-4 mauling if they return home and win two games and a world title with it. But to do so, they will have to wipe about a dozen crates of eggs off their mugs. It's one thing to get beaten. But this was a Biblical beating.

This postseason has been brim full of praise for the Angels' mighty hitters. No one seems able to stop raving about the way they bombarded the staff of the New York Yankees. Then, after dispatching the Twins quickly, the Angels drummed on the Giants' staff to the tune of a .340 batting average in the first four games of this Series.

What an offense, what a juggernaut. Only one enormously pertinent fact was forgotten. In this 98th World Series, the entire Angels starting rotation -- normally a solid quartet -- has fallen into an abysmal funk at the worst possible time. So, forget the thumping October hits of Troy Glaus, Scott Spiezio and Tim Salmon. Instead, take a hard look at Washburn, Kevin Appier, Ramon Ortiz and John Lackey. The Giants' hitters are sure lookin' at 'em. And they love what they see.

After this night, it is the well-balanced Giants -- with enormously serious hitters of their own and, so far, more competent pitching -- who are within one win of a world title. The Giants sent so many runners spinning around the bases this chilly evening that Manager Dusty Baker's 3-year-old son, Darren, serving as batboy, was almost trampled at home plate. But J.T. Snow snatched the toddler up in his arms with one hand just seconds before another San Francisco runner barreled across the plate behind him.

Nobody was safe from the Giants' attack. Jeff Kent's second home run of the night missed my head by inches as I sat in the left field bleachers press box. Forget the head. At least it missed my computer or you wouldn't be reading this. The Post's Steve Fainaru recovered the loose ball and gave the ball to a child. What a heart he's got. I can barely write through my tears. Because if I'd beaten him to it, a different kid would have had the ball -- mine.

Kent also had a double in his four-RBI night, Barry Bonds added a pair of doubles and a singlej, and Benito Santiago had three RBI in this game.

"That was a flat-out whoopin'," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. No, Mike, that was a triple whoopin'. That's when the other guys whoop you so bad that it hurts your family pets and your next of kin, too.

Give credit to the Giants. But not too much. They were 10th in baseball in runs scored this season. They're not the '27 Yanks. It is the futility of Angels starters that is deciding this Series. And may, in Game 6, finally decide this affair. Because the weakest of all the Angels' fragile links -- 34-year-old Appier, who hasn't had a quality start this entire postseason and who lasted only two innings four days ago -- is scheduled for Game 6. The Angels wish they had someone, anyone, else. But they don't.

How low have the Angels' starters fallen? Consider the case of Washburn, supposedly the best Anaheim has to offer.

In the first inning Erstad made a fine running catch to rob Aurilia. In the second, Erstad made an almost identical play, except that this was a dazzling diving catch, again preventing the ball from rolling all the way to the 421-foot sign.

What a break! Because without those two Erstad's thefts, without those two blessed extra outs, the Giants would have scored 10 runs in the first inning. That's right, t-e-n. Because of Erstad's grabs, the Giants ended up with a mere six runs in the first two innings.

The first 15 Giants batters clobbered the wild and rattled Washburn for three singles, two doubles, five walks, two long sacrifice flies and those two potential triples that Erstad intercepted in full flight. Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt did strike out on three pitches, presumably out of professional courtesy. Or maybe just pity for a fellow pitcher in total misery.

Seldom has a Series team's best pitcher -- best by a wide margin -- taken such a drubbing, especially after giving up three home runs in a Game 1 defeat as well. The 28-year-old lefty built an 18-6 mark this season based largely on excellent command of his hopping fastball -- the proverbial high hard one.

Unfortunately, as the Giants pointed out with glee after Game 1, they just love to hit high fastballs. Apparently, Washburn has no Plan B. Combine that with atrocious control -- 21 of his first 31 pitches were balls -- and you've got a disaster.

What Angels hitters have given, Washburn, Appier, Ortiz and Lackey have given right back. Plus some. In their five starts, they have allowed 31 hits, 16 walks, 9 homers and 22 runs in less than 22 innings for a numbing ERA of 9.14.

How does Scioscia sleep at night? Actually, with Appier on tap the Angels' skipper probably isn't going to be sleeping much at all. "We don't have many options," Scioscia said this week when asked if Appier would still work Game 6.

For decades, Game 5 of the Series has been described with the same cliche: "The Pivotal Fifth Game." It's taken as gospel that, when a Series is tied at two games apiece, the winner of the fifth game has a huge advantage. And after this lopsided beating, that maxim will serve double duty.

However, like many unexamined verities, this one simply isn't true. History says that this Series is now dead even -- with a 50 percent chance that either team will win. The Giants are ahead in wins. But having the last two games in Anaheim is huge.

Here are the facts. Since the World Series went to its current 2-3-2 format for home games in 1924, the Series has been tied after four games on 32 occasions. The team in the Giants' position -- playing its final home game of the year in Game 5 -- has won 18 of those 32 fifth games. Yet, overall, the team that played Game 5 at home ended up losing 20 of the 32 series! Pivotal, my PC.

Here's what Game 5 really means. It is pivotal if the home team loses -- because that means you're all but dead. Such teams have lost 11 of 14 Series after dropping Game 5. So, last night was a "must win" for the Giants.

What has happened to the 18 teams -- like the Giants -- who won Game 5 at home? They won nine Series and lost nine, too.

So, keep that champagne on ice. There's still work to do.

If the Giants are wise, they will focus mightily on Game 6. Because their own possible rotation weak link -- Livan Hernandez -- looms in the wings for Game 7. With this memorable drubbing of the Angels, the Giants now lead this Series to be sure. But probably by less than they think.

Angels' Darin Erstad is tagged out while running to first base in the sixth inning by Giants pitcher Chad Zerbe.