Angels clinch AL West with time to spare

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The Los Angeles Angels partied as if
they'd just won it all, figuring they deserved to let loose after
everything the club went through to capture another division title.

The Angels are going back to the playoffs, and this year they'll
have plenty of time to get ready. They're the first American League
team to clinch a postseason berth.

Bengie Molina homered and Ervin Santana pitched 6 2/3 strong
innings, helping Los Angeles win the AL West with a 4-3 victory
over the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday night.

"To go to the playoffs, at this stage, after what we've done,
we deserve this celebration," Molina said. "We got it done right
away. We don't have to think about them coming back or any of

Here's how wild this bunch became in the cramped quarters of the
visitors' clubhouse: Orlando Cabrera, the most recent veteran of
such a celebration after winning the World Series with Boston last
fall, quickly pulled on swim goggles to protect his eyes from
champagne dousings that came from every which way.

The Angels arrived in Oakland on Monday needing two wins in the
four-game series to wrap up the division crown, and they quickly
took care of business. Los Angeles won the opener 4-3, then came
back from an early one-run deficit Tuesday to eliminate the A's
from postseason contention.

"It could have turned the other way in a heartbeat," manager
Mike Scioscia said between swigs of champagne straight from the
bottle. "This team had to play very well to beat that club over
there. It's good we didn't let it drag on. ... They were in grind
mode all year and got this first step done."

When pinch-hitter Bobby Kielty flied out to left to end it,
Molina jumped for joy and threw both arms in the air, then the
Angels made a mad dash to the mound to celebrate. Molina also was
the last to leave the field, again with his arms raised.

Now the Angels get to relax a bit during their final five games
and wait as four other teams fight for the AL's three remaining
playoff spots. Last year, they won the West by beating Oakland on
the final weekend.

"You got to get to the party before you can play," owner Arte
Moreno said. "We're at the party now."

Santana (11-8) won his third straight start and the
free-swinging Angels reached the playoffs in consecutive years for
the first time in franchise history -- celebrating in the very place
they captured the division title a year ago on the season's final

Juan Rivera added an RBI double, Robb Quinlan singled in a run
and Chone Figgins had an RBI single as the Angels won the fifth
division title in club history with their 10th win in 11 games. Los
Angeles scored all its runs off Joe Kennedy (3-5), done after 3 2/3

Francisco Rodriguez allowed a leadoff homer to Marco Scutaro in
the ninth, but recovered for his 16th straight save and 43rd

Los Angeles led the division or shared the lead for all but five
days after the All-Star break, overcoming several injuries and
unimpressive seasons by star players, and using an eight-game
winning streak Sept. 16-24 to put themselves in prime position
heading into the final week.

Santana, who started the season at Double-A Arkansas and also
pitched for Triple-A Salt Lake, showed just why he made such a
rapid ascent to the majors by delivering his most clutch
performance yet.

He struck out seven and walked one, giving up seven hits.

"He stepped up and filled a huge void for us," Scioscia said.

The 22-year-old right-hander has the most victories by an Angels
rookie since Jason Dickson won 13 games in 1997.

Only four regulars and two starting pitchers remain from the
Angels group that made an improbable run to the World Series title
in 2002 as a wild-card team, beating the San Francisco Giants in
seven games after rallying from a 5-1 deficit in Game 6.

Los Angeles is determined to erase the memory of its quick exit
from the playoffs a year ago when the Angels were swept in three
games by the Red Sox in the division series.

"I always say the two biggest celebrations are now and when you
win the World Series," said outfielder Steve Finley, in the
playoffs for the seventh time with his fourth team.

Dan Johnson doubled to left-center in the fourth for the A's,
scoring Bobby Crosby from first. Crosby grimaced as he sprinted
from third to home, still nursing a broken left ankle. Crosby left
the game in the top of the seventh with soreness in the ankle and
was replaced at shortstop by Scutaro.

The A's, out of wild-card contention, will miss the playoffs for
the second consecutive season after four straight appearances from
2000-03. A dismal crowd of 18,416 watched as Oakland again
struggled to score enough runs.

After a 7-20 May that featured two eight-game losing streaks,
the A's bounced back with another strong second half to make things
interesting in the final month.

"This team made a good run, showed a lot of character, a lot of
heart," center fielder Mark Kotsay said. "We'll finish up the
season, but the opportunity of making the playoffs is gone and
that's disappointing."

Game notes
Rodriguez moved past Troy Percival (1998) for sole
possession of second place on the team's single-season saves list.
... A's RHP Rich Harden, pitching for the second time after missing
more than a month with a strained muscle below his throwing
shoulder, worked in relief and was clocked at 100 mph on his final
pitch of the seventh. ... Adam Melhuse made a rare start for the
A's, serving as the DH in place of struggling Scott Hatteberg,
1-for-22 on the homestand.