While the mad scrum that is the American League playoff picture continues into the final weekend, the Angels have taken care of business and can now focus on their third playoff trip in four years while they wait to see whom and where they'll play. Although the Angels still have a shot at the best record in the league, home field doesn't mean as much to manager Mike Scioscia as the full readiness of the middle of his order. Vladimir Guerrero is nursing a sore shoulder and Garret Anderson has been in and out of the lineup and the outfield with back problems, and Scioscia will use the final weekend to rest his most potent right- and left-handed weapons for the games that really matter next week.
After all, the Angels had home field last October against the Red Sox, and got swept.
"If we're playing our brand of ball the way we should be, it really doesn't matter if we're home or away," Scioscia said.
The Angels will carry 10 pitchers on their postseason roster, with a rested Bartolo Colon and John Lackey fronting the rotation, and the Game 3 starter in the first round being decided between Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn, "depending on the matchup."
Scioscia also didn't rule out rookie Ervin Santana's getting a postseason turn in the rotation. When I asked him to what he attributed this late September spurt that sealed the division title, he said it was "the return to timely hitting, getting two-out hits, productive situational hitting, which is our trademark."
The other major factor has been the return of Kelvim Escobar from elbow surgery. In Scioscia's words, "He's been amazing, I don't know where we'd be without him. It's allowed Scot Shields to get refreshed and throw as well as he has all year, and lessened the load on Frankie [Rodriguez]."
Although the Angels were preseason favorites to win the West and contend for a championship, it was tougher than expected.
"You have to commemorate achievement any time you have it, and this is one of the most important because it's such a grind just to get there," Scioscia said. "Last year when we won it here in Oakland on the next to last day, everyone was gassed, we were just totally worn down and not at full strength for the playoffs. This year we're in much better shape, and have the extra time to restore."
Angels owner Arte Moreno, who bought the team right after the inflated value of that 2002 World Series title, made the trip to Oakland with his front-office staff for the clincher and joined the players and Scioscia's staff into the wee hours drinking in the accomplishment.
In the other clubhouse, Lou Wolff was coming to the end of his first season as owner of the A's team he took over in March, with what was expected to be a retooled team built for the future. Before what turned out to be the night his team was officially eliminated, Wolff spoke to his players in the clubhouse, thanking them for all the effort they'd given him and the joy it brought him. And he said it in all sincerity … while wearing a Bobby Kielty red clown wig! That shows not only the humor and down-to-earth nature of the team's new owner but also the contagious personality of the player simply known as "Ronnie Mac."
Kielty's popularity has become as noticeable as his carrot-colored coif, which led to a "Troll Night" giveaway Sunday, when Oakland fans were not only given trolls with red hair and the reserve outfielder's No. 23 A's jersey, but many of them showed up with their own hair died various shades of red and teased out like their hero's. Kielty spent much of the night signing the trolls but never got in the game. Three nights later, Ronnie Mac smacked a three-run homer that sealed the A's first win in five days. And why do his teammates call him Ronnie Mac? A month earlier, after a bitter one-run loss to the Angels that dropped Oakland into a first-place tie, Kielty showed up for the pregame workouts in an authentic Ronald McDonald costume, but without the need of a wig. He looked better than the original, and the levity of watching him play catch in that "uniform" broke the tension of a taut series with Los Angeles.
Oakland made an improbable run with the help of a corps of young arms anchored by Rich Harden and Rookie of the Year candidate Huston Street. The only leftover from the "Big Three," Barry Zito, now serves as the sage veteran of the staff at the ripe old age of 27, a role similar to what good friend Tim Hudson is filling with a baby-faced Braves staff. Zito got a voice mail from Hudson near daylight Thursday after Atlanta celebrated its 14th straight division title. The week before, Zito had congratulated Mark Mulder for his first postseason with the Cardinals, and Barry says if the Cards and Braves play each other in the second round, he'll go to watch his buddies. When I asked him which side he'd sit on, he said, "right down the middle behind home plate."
The night before Zito made his failed attempt to win his 15th game, I asked him what it was like to play out the string: "I don't know, it's weird, I don't think I've ever pitched in a game that didn't mean something."
The Cards are closing Busch Stadium this weekend, and former A's and Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire is making a rare return for the festivities. But here's how the deals that aren't done can impact history. In late July of 1997, as the trading deadline approaches, A's ownership knows it can't afford to re-sign McGwire. Then-assistant general manager Billy Beane has long coveted Angels outfielder Jim Edmonds, and McGwire would love to go back to his Southern California roots. The only detail is deciding whether Angels GM Bill Stoneman will include Scott Schoeneweis, or fellow lefty Jarrod Washburn.
Before the deal can be finalized, the Angels sweep four games in Cleveland, with Edmonds on a tear. Now they have to reconsider, and the deal is never consummated. On July 31, McGwire ends up reuniting with Tony La Russa in St. Louis, where the following season he will shatter Roger Maris' single-season home run mark. The Angels get promising second baseman Adam Kennedy, who will become a huge part of their first pennant (as ALCS MVP) and ensuing World Series title, in exchange for Edmonds, who will become a core player for the Cards' first pennant since 1987. And for McGwire, the A's get T.J. Mathews, Blake Stein and Eric Ludwick, none of whom has any impact on his new team. Oakland is also forced to continue through a parade of center fielders that includes Ernie Young, Patrick Lennon, Jason McDonald, Rich Becker, Terrence Long, Eric Byrnes, Johnny Damon for a season and, finally, Mark Kotsay, who recently inked a long-term contract. Just imagine the A's with Edmonds, McGwire not in St. Louis, and the 2002 Angels without Kennedy and Washburn. It nearly happened.
Less than three months after the big trade that wasn't, and the ones that were, Beane succeeded Sandy Alderson as Oakland's GM and fashioned a design of building an organization with limited resources that went on to be chronicled in the best-selling book "Moneyball." Beane says he still gets at least one e-mail a day about the book, and more than once has sat next to someone on an airplane reading the book. Michael Lewis' book is in preliminary production with Sony studios, and just last week, Beane finally agreed to grant the project his blessing. I asked him if Tom Cruise was going to play him, and he said, "No, more like someone maniacal like Bruce Dern … or Christopher Walken. Yeah, he'd be perfect."
The Rangers not only still have a shot at the single-season home run record by a team, but Michael Young is all but assured of winning his first batting title. Legendary hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is an integral part of both accomplishments; he says the historic homering isn't just the personnel and their favorable ballpark but also the technique they teach in Texas -- "to drive the ball." With the power up and down the Rangers' lineup, driving the ball often ends up in its landing beyond the fence, but Jaramillo acknowledges one consequence: His hitters have a hard time executing situational hitting, going the other way, bunting, getting a runner in from third or over from second. Jaramillo says it's too late to try and convert their style this season, but next spring when they gather in Surprise, Ariz., getting his sluggers to be more complete hitters is tops on his agenda. As for Young's potential batting title, Jaramillo says, "It would mean a lot to me. I've had MVPs [four] and countless Silver Slugger Award winners , but never coached a batting champ. It would be very special."
Gary Miller is a reporter for ESPN's major-league baseball coverage.