OAKLAND -- Joe Saunders was beaming. "My kind of weather," he said, referring to the cool breezes that wafted through the East Bay on Sunday as the regular season ended with a 5-3 Angels triumph over the Athletics at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. The next time Saunders goes to work, he will be in Boston for Game 4 of the American League Division Series, assuming it is required.
The conditions figure to be very much like Sunday's, the kind Saunders grew up in as a proud Virginian and former Virginia Tech student athlete. "I love pitching in this kind of weather," he said. "It reminded me of a fall day in Virginia, a good day to pitch." With Saunders delivering five quality innings and Mike Napoli unloading his 20th homer and scoring three times, the Angels won their seventh of the last eight games and wrapped up a 97-win campaign in anticipation of another heavy date with the Red Sox. Champions of the AL West three straight years and five of the past six, the Angels figure to open the ALDS on Thursday at 6:37 p.m. PT. This assumes the best-record Yankees exercise their right to select the series that begins on Wednesday, creating a short turnaround for their opponent -- the winner of the Tigers-Twins showdown for the AL Central on Tuesday in Minnesota. In preparation for his postseason assignment in a ballpark that he has found to his liking, Saunders (16-7) yielded two second-inning runs before settling into a groove and shutting down the A's from the third through the fifth. He departed having given up six hits and two walks, striking out three. Over his final eight starts, following a season-long bout with shoulder issues, Saunders fashioned a 2.55 ERA in 49 1/3 innings. The win, giving him a share of the team lead with Game 2 ALDS starter Jered Weaver, was Saunders' seventh without a loss and seventh in those eight starts. "Back in August was one of the better decisions I've made in my career, along with the Angels helping me make that decision," Saunders said of his trip to the disabled list on Aug. 6 with stiffness in his left shoulder. "I needed that [19-day] break, took that [cortisone] shot, and cleaned that knot out. "In June and July, I hurt the team. One of my personal goals was to come back strong, let them know what I can do. The tightness and soreness were out of there and I could throw the ball the way I'm capable." Ervin Santana, who will pitch in relief in the ALDS, came on in relief of Saunders and worked two scoreless innings. Santana gave up three singles but struck out the side in the seventh and induced a double-play grounder from 2002 Angels postseason star Adam Kennedy to end the sixth. "My slider was very good -- tight, with a lot of movement," Santana said through a big smile. "That's very good, especially right now when we need it." Darren Oliver tuned up with a scoreless eighth inning, getting two strikeouts, and Kevin Jepsen surrendered an unearned run in the ninth while notching his first save. He struck out Rajai Davis to end it. The pitching staff, patched together most of the season because of assorted injuries, had the best ERA in the Majors in September at 2.92. The offense, propping up the club from June through August, produced a franchise-record 883 runs, 5.5 per game, leading the Majors in batting average (.285) and average with runners in scoring position (.297). Finishing the season with three hits and a club-high .312 batting average, Aybar set a record for Angels shortstops. The previous high average was Orlando Cabrera's .302 in 2007. "Erick's been on a surge," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, Aybar finishing with 10 hits in his last 15 at-bats. "That's one of the young guys who have turned into a difference-maker. I think he's hands-down a Gold Glover. He really played incredible defense." Center fielder Torii Hunter, seemingly a shoe-in for his ninth consecutive Rawlings Gold Glove, landed one hit shy of .300 at .299, collecting RBI No. 90 on Sunday in his final at-bat. He likely would have eclipsed his career high of 107 if not for the month he missed with a groin injury. Napoli's third-inning homer, an opposite-field drive to right, came against Jerry Blevins after lefty Brad Kilby worked two scoreless innings. Napoli joined Kendry Morales (34), Juan Rivera (25) and Hunter (22) with at least 20 homers. Not since 2000, when Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Tim Salmon and Mo Vaughn each delivered at least 25 homers, have the Angels had that much depth in the power department. Napoli's homer also gave the current offense a club-record 838 runs batted in, toppling the former record, held by that 2000 wrecking crew. Morales finished with force, going 10 for his last 19 with three homers and nine RBIs. The Angels took the lead with three fifth-inning runs highlighted by Hunter's RBI double and a run-scoring infield out that gave Bobby Abreu 103 RBIs. Morales then drove in his 108th run, a club high. Napoli, who scored in the fifth after getting hit by a Jeff Gray pitch, singled in the sixth, moved to third on Aybar's single and scored on a balk by Craig Breslow. "I think we're all very proud how these guys, especially the younger players, performed," said Scioscia, the first manager in history to take six teams to the postseason in his first 10 seasons. "It's indicative of the talent level that's been here all season. This resurgence offensively was very important for us." On deck is Boston -- and everything it represents.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.