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Plenty still at stake for AL West champs

Plenty still at stake for Angels

ANAHEIM -- It is a whole different ballgame in October.

Torii Hunter knows.

"This ain't my first rodeo," the Angels' center fielder said through a big smile on Thursday afternoon, 24 hours after his team won the American League West. "What happens in the regular season has nothing to do with the postseason. None of that matters. Everything is different -- and I mean everything. You get a guy like Adam Kennedy hitting three home runs in a game. You never know who's going to pop up and go crazy on you -- or for you."

Garret Anderson knows.

"All those regular-season stats go out the window when the postseason starts," the Angels' left fielder/designated hitter said. "Home-field advantage is important. To a degree, it is an advantage. But we've played very well on the road. That's what's important. We don't have to be home to beat somebody."

Mike Scioscia certainly knows.

"In 1988," the Angels' manager said, recalling a magical season with the Dodgers as their catcher, "we were 1-10 against the Mets in the regular season with a Doc Gooden rainout. So it might as well have been 1-11. You know what happened in the postseason."

The Dodgers flattened the heavily favored Queens outfit in seven National League Championship Series games en route to an equally stunning five-game rubout of the vaunted "Bash Brothers" of Oakland in the World Series.

"That's what I'm talking about," Hunter said. "Crazy things happen in October, man. That's just the way it is."

The Angels are making their eighth journey into postseason play. They lost their first three series -- in 1979 to Baltimore, 3-1; in 1982 to Milwaukee, 3-2; in 1986 to Boston, 4-3. Ending a 16-year drought in 2002 as the AL Wild Card, they whipped the Yankees, 3-1, and Twins, 4-1, on their way to a seven-game triumph over the Giants in the World Series.

In 2004, the Angels were swept three straight by Boston, which repeated the feat in 2007. In 2005, the Angels eliminated the Yankees, 3-2, before bowing to the White Sox, 4-1, in the ALCS.

The Angels are the first team in this season, having wrapped up their fourth AL West title in five years, and seventh in franchise history, earlier than the division has ever been clinched.

This gives Scioscia 2 1/2 weeks, 17 games, to fine-tune, align his rotation, keep veterans sharp but rested, to do everything possible to have his machine humming on all cylinders for Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Oct. 1 or Oct. 2 -- presumably at Angel Stadium.

Shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howie Kendrick, idled by left hamstring strains since Aug. 27, have been running for four days. They ran the bases in earnest on Thursday and figure to get enough late-season playing time to be ready for the postseason, Scioscia said.

Third baseman Chone Figgins, who has missed three games with a tender right elbow, figures to be back in the lineup this weekend. Hunter is expected back in center field this weekend after serving a two-game suspension, giving him time to heal a tweaked quadriceps muscle.

The only physical question on the pitching staff involves the right hand of Jered Weaver. He sustained two cuts on his middle and ring fingers in Detroit and was set to test it on Thursday night against the Mariners.

Scioscia has time to align his starters, with John Lackey, Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders and Jon Garland all eager to get starts along with Weaver.

"We have five guys we're comfortable with putting out there in a playoff situation," Scioscia said.

The only way the Angels won't have home-field advantage in the first round is if the winners of the AL East and Central have better records. At the moment, the Central-leading White Sox are seven games behind Scioscia's troupe.

The Angels are almost assured of facing the Red Sox or Rays in the ALDS. The AL East champion figures to face the Central kingpin, with the Wild Card club coming to Anaheim.

Chasing the Rays in the East, Boston leads Minnesota in the Wild Card race by five games. The Wild Card faces the division champion with the best record -- unless it's a division rival.

For what it's worth -- not a whole lot, if you listen to Hunter -- the Angels are 8-1 against the Red Sox (with eight consecutive wins), 3-6 against the Rays (1-5 in the Tropicana Field dome), 5-3 against the Twins and 5-5 against the White Sox.

"If anyone thinks those [records] matter," Hunter said, "they haven't been through it. They can use whatever information they want, but when you get on the field, it's what you've got going at that moment -- not what happened months ago."

The Red Sox swept the Angels in the best-of-five ALDS in 2004 and 2007. A rash of late-season injuries had the Angels in a diminished condition heading into the '07 postseason.

"We had a lot of injuries," Anderson said. "You can't control that stuff. I don't take anything away from Boston -- they were a fine team. We weren't healthy. They rolled over us and everybody else."

There will be occasional days off, but the Angels' elder statesman has no intention of gearing down with the first phase of the challenge accomplished.

"What we have to do now is play out the season," Anderson said. "We have a responsibility to our owner, the people who pay our checks. We have a responsibility to do our jobs. I come to the park to play every day. We've been doing it for 6 1/2 months. Why stop now? It's a half-full type of thing. I enjoy playing."

The Angels' biggest race at the moment is with the Rays for best record and home-field advantage throughout the postseason. Coming into Thursday night's games, the 88-57 Angels held a half-game lead over the 87-57 Rays, but they were even in the loss column.

With the AL having won the All-Star Game, the team with the league's best record gets to choose whether it opens the Division Series on Oct. 1 or Oct. 2. The series that begins on Oct. 1 has three off-days, allowing the manager to go with a three-man rotation if he chooses. The other series, starting on Oct. 2, has two scheduled days off.

Should the White Sox or Twins claim the Wild Card, that team would play either the Angels or the AL East champion -- the club with the best record.

Catching their collective breath after a wild celebration on Wednesday, the Angels aren't interested in entertaining all these possibilities just yet. They're just content that they're in first, waiting for seven others to join them.

"This is straight positive," Hunter said firmly, when asked if there were any drawbacks to clinching so soon. "When I was with the Twins, we grinded it out every time, 162 games [to reach the postseason]. Mentally, we were done. That's why we couldn't get past the Yankees [in 2003 and 2004]."

Minnesota reached the postseason in four of five seasons, starting in 2002, with Hunter as its center fielder and leader. Only in 2002 did the Twins reach the ALCS, losing in five games to the glory-bound Angels, who took flight into the World Series with three homers from Kennedy in an Angel Stadium clincher Hunter hasn't forgotten.

"I want to take it all the way this time," the center fielder said. "One step at a time."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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