OAKLAND, Calif. - Sometime during the last several weeks, pitcher Jarrod Washburn began to sense a change in the mood surrounding the Anaheim Angels. Losing was no longer an option.
"It shifted back to where things were in '02," Washburn said.
Back in '02, the Angels won the World Series.
The Angels have another talented lineup heading into the playoffs, but this time they're going in as the division champions for the first time in 18 years. The team two years ago won the AL wild card.
Going into Sunday, the Angels still weren't sure who they'd face in the playoffs. There was a chance they would open at home against Boston, or start on the road against the New York Yankees.
Winning the AL West - the club's fourth division crown and first since 1986 - happened more easily than most would have expected. Anaheim beat Mark Mulder in Friday's 10-0 rout of the Oakland Athletics, then rallied against the A's shaky bullpen to win 5-4 Saturday after Barry Zito shut them down for seven innings.
It didn't even have to come down to the final day. The Angels made up a three-game deficit since Sept. 24.
"A few weeks back, we weren't mathematically eliminated, but if we were going to get in we were going to have to win the division," Washburn said. "The atmosphere in here did seem to change. It just tells you a lot about the character of the guys on this team that we never counted ourselves out and never gave up. At times this year we weren't playing baseball to our capabilities, but in crunch time guys got the job done."
The Angels chased Oakland and Texas for much of the season, but never fell below.500 and played superbly on the road down the stretch. They won seven of eight to clinch the division.
Much of their lineup competed while banged up, and didn't let their narrow deficit in the division a week ago stand in the way of winning at the wire. Washburn, Garret Anderson, Darin Erstad, Troy Glaus, Adam Kennedy, Bengie Molina and Tim Salmon all dealt with injuries through the year.
"It feels fantastic," closer Troy Percival said. "Now, we want to do one more thing - win a world championship. The guys here responded by playing their game the same way every day. That's something about having a veteran team. We just didn't panic."
Angels owner Arte Moreno raised the team's payroll to $110 million this season to put the club in better playoff position - signing star slugger Vladimir Guerrero to a $70 million, five-year contract in January. Guerrero batted.337 with 39 homers and 126 RBIs.
"When I bought the team, I wanted the fans to taste champagne and not settle for beer," Moreno said.
It would have been easy for the Angels to be distracted by more than just injuries.
Outfielder Jose Guillen was suspended Sept. 26 following his outburst after being removed for a pinch-runner the previous day. Guillen and the Angels reached a financial settlement Friday to resolve a grievance filed afterward, agreeing that Guillen would not rejoin the Angels for the remainder of the season.
Everyone quickly moved past the commotion for the sake of their postseason hopes. They knew thinking about Guillen could derail the mission.
"The Jose Guillen thing is water under the bridge right now," manager Mike Scioscia said Sunday as he pondered a handful of playoff roster scenarios. "Jose is going to be better for it. We're going to be better for it."
Bartolo Colon got things started with an outstanding outing Friday night. Because he dominated in seven sharp innings - while pitching on three days' rest for the third time in his career - the Angels saved top relievers Percival and Francisco Rodriguez to be available Saturday. And both were needed.
"They stayed together and played great baseball in the second half, especially this week," Scioscia said. "We had the toughest road of any club. We talked about it the whole season that this is a very competitive division, but nobody was ever going to be too far ahead or too far behind. We wanted to play well enough to make these games count."
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