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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Championship Sunday: Angels win West

Halos head back to postseason behind Lackey, homers
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com

ANAHEIM -- Amid a sea of red on a perfect autumn afternoon, the Angels took the first necessary step in the path toward their version of the Promised Land.

Behind John Lackey, a man with a history of responding to the big moment, the Angels put away the Mariners, 7-4, and claimed the American League West title in front of 44,234 Angel Stadium fans on Sunday.

"I take a little pride in that sort of thing," Lackey said in a clubhouse erupting with the sounds of joy and champagne corks unleashed. "I enjoy the opportunity in big games and try to make the most of it.

"I played everything growing up, and I'm pretty competitive. I like to compete in big games. This being Fan Appreciation Day makes it pretty cool. Our fans have been great to us."

Lackey, the long, tall Texan who won Game 7 of the 2002 World Series for the Halos, was up to the task after the Mariners stubbornly stalled the clincher for two days, keeping the fans on hold until the final home game of the regular season.

Going seven innings and holding the Mariners to two runs before turning it over to the bullpen, Lackey delivered a performance that could not have hurt his bid for the Cy Young Award. He has a career-high 18 wins against nine losses, and his 3.11 ERA is second in the AL to Cleveland's Faust Carmona at 3.03.

Francisco Rodriguez, Lackey's fellow rookie with the 2002 champions, closed it out with a flourish, setting Seattle down in order in the ninth for his 38th save to touch off the celebration.

This is the Angels' sixth division title and third in the past four seasons. It's the first time since 1986 that a playoff berth was wrapped up at home. Their lone Wild Card appearance was in 2002 when they went on to win the franchise's first World Series crown.

"This is what you play for," Mike Scioscia said, having claimed his 701st regular-season win as Angels manager. "All you can do is grind it out and try to keep your focus on a day-to-day basis. Last year we fell short of our goal. We're back this year, and it's only the first round."

The Angels likely won't know their AL Division Series opponent until the final day or two of the season, given how close the four clubs likely to be involved are in the chase for best overall record and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

"We have three more of these after this one," general manager Bill Stoneman said, standing on the periphery of the celebration. "That's the objective here.

"This was an entire team effort, from Mike and the coaches through the entire roster. I don't know how many [players] we had over the course of the season up here, but it seems like they all contributed."

A total of 42 players wore the Angels uniform and appeared in a box score this season.

Scioscia lauded the play of an array of young performers who delivered handsomely, with poise and maturity, as one injury after another claimed everyday players over the course of the season -- starting with the brilliant Chone Figgins and starting pitchers Bartolo Colon and Jered Weaver out of the gate.

"The young kids really came through for them," Scioscia said, "and for us to keep this going and get to our ultimate goal, they'll have to keep doing it."

Added Stoneman: "We've got a lot of guys who are experiencing this for the first time. Hopefully, it whets their appetite."

Facing former teammate Jeff Weaver, older brother of Jered Weaver, the Angels struck early with a pair of those developing talents who excelled all summer.

Casey Kotchman launched a homer leading off the second inning, his 10th of the season, and Maicer Izturis followed with a two-run blast, his sixth, after a walk by Gary Matthews Jr.

"It was a breaking ball down and in, and I got it in the air," Kotchman said of his first homer since July 1. "I've been spoiled. I've been here since Mr. [Arte] Moreno took over, and I've been to the postseason in '04, '05 and now '07.

"To get in [the playoffs] gives you a chance. Now you want to take it as far as you can."

It was especially satisfying for center fielder Matthews and reliever Justin Speier, veteran free-agent acquisitions reaching the postseason for the first time after years of watching October baseball.

"It's everything I thought it would be," said Glove Glove candidate Matthews, who embraced Moreno in the raucous clubhouse celebration.

While Kotchman and Izturis got the Angels jump-started on Sunday, contributions came from everywhere -- notably from the irrepressible shortstop Orlando Cabrera, who delivered with his glove and bat.

Lackey, using his big-breaking curveball as the main weapon in striking out seven hitters, yielded a pair of first-inning singles, but an acrobatic double play turned by Cabrera on a throw from the pitcher helped him out of the inning.

Lackey took a shutout into the fifth, when Ben Broussard doubled and scored on Jose Lopez's single. Lackey left two runners stranded when Ichiro Suzuki went down swinging on a big curve.
"He's a guy who takes pride in getting his hits," Lackey said of hit machine Ichiro. "You kinda know he's going to swing, and you try to take advantage of it."

The Mariners made it a one-run game in the sixth when Raul Ibanez doubled and scored on Broussard's double.

Weaver departed with an injury in the sixth after Izturis singled and Howie Kendrick was hit by a pitch for the second time. After a walk to Jeff Mathis, Figgins' sacrifice fly plated Izturis, and Cabrera's single delivered Kendrick.

Loading the bases with one out against Scot Shields in the eighth, the Mariners scored when Speier recorded a strikeout of Broussard that got past catcher Mathis for a wild pitch.

The next pitch also eluded Mathis for another wild pitch, allowing a second run to score, before Speier retired Jose Vidro on a roller to Kotchman at first to quell the threat.

K-Rod came in and finished off the Angels' 54th home victory of the season, matching the club record set in 2002.

The regular season will end with three games apiece in Texas and Oakland. The Angels will be jockeying for favorable postseason position with the Indians, Red Sox and Yankees, giving importance to all of those games.

"We all know where we've been," said Moreno, the man who signs the checks. "We're pretty excited about where we're going."

Indians claim AL Central crown

Finish matches month-long span that put Tribe in position
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- They clinched it the way they claimed it.

The Indians came into Sunday's game with a supreme focus on locking up the American League Central Division championship in the regular-season home finale, in front of a bustling sellout crowd of 40,250 fans.

"That's what we wanted to do," starter Jake Westbrook said. "We got some help yesterday with Kansas City beating Detroit [dropping the magic number down to one], and we just wanted to get it done today for Cleveland and the fans here."

They got it done, officially, when Rafael Betancourt struck out Mark Ellis in the top of the ninth to cap a 6-2 victory over the A's.

But the Indians' first division title since 2001 and their seventh in 13 seasons became theirs, for all intents and purposes, over the course of a month-long span in which they've beared down and played their best baseball of the season.

The division race between the Tribe and the Tigers was knotted up Aug. 15. Then the Indians turned on the jets and went 27-9 over their last 36 games.

So if they seemed a little more intense and a little more determined Sunday, don't let it fool you.

"We're always intense," center fielder Grady Sizemore said. "I don't think we ever lose that.
This is a team that never gives up."

Still, Sizemore had to admit, "We had a sense of urgency to get it done today."

They certainly showed it.

Westbrook, coming off a rough outing in a big game against Detroit, struck out a career-high nine batters over seven strong innings of work.

Sizemore, batting in the leadoff spot, turned in a four-hit performance for the fourth time this season. All the hits came off lefties.

Betancourt, sent in to relieve Rafael Perez of a two-out, two-on jam in the eighth, pitched 1 1/3 perfect innings, striking out three.

It was a game that served as representation of how the Indians got themselves into this enviable position in the first place.

"We've had a great focus for an extended period of time," manager Eric Wedge said. "You saw it again today."

Wedge always harps on how a team's performance starts with the starting pitching. And from the beginning of this game, it was clear Westbrook had his best sinker working. The crowd began to roar as he prepared to throw the game's first pitch to Shannon Stewart, and he fed off that energy to force key double-play balls in the first and second innings.

"I was throwing the ball hard and locating a lot of my pitches," Westbrook said. "It was fun to pitch today."

This season hasn't always been fun for Westbrook. He struggled in April and strained an abdominal muscle in early May, forcing him to sit for six weeks. When he came back, he looked rusty, right up until he put together an outstanding August that was instrumental in the Tribe's standings surge.

"My season had not gone the way I wanted it to, personally," Westbrook said. "But to be a part of this team and pitching in big ballgames in the second half has been great."

The Indians' offense rose to the occasion of this big ballgame, with Sizemore leading the way. His RBI single off Dallas Braden in the second inning gave the Tribe a 2-0 lead. And in the fourth, his RBI triple to the right-field corner was part of a four-run outburst begun by Casey Blake's two-run double and capped by Asdrubal Cabrera's run-scoring single to left.

Did Sizemore, who was batting just .148 over his previous eight games, feel a particular need to spark the offense on this day?

"It's not that I had to, it's that I wanted to set the tone early," he said. "I wanted to get on base and just create. We knew if we could get ahead early, with the way our bullpen's going, [the A's] wouldn't be able to get back in the game."

Sizemore was right. Westbrook worked through the seventh, with his only blemish coming when he served up a two-run homer to Daric Barton in the sixth.

In the eighth, Perez found trouble by giving up a two-out single to Stewart and a double to Barton. But Betancourt came in to fan Nick Swisher.

All that was left was to finish the job in the ninth. Betancourt, who has emerged as one of the premier setup men in all of baseball this season, kept pounding the outside edge with his trusty fastball to get Jack Cust looking at strike three. Mike Piazza then popped out weakly to second, and Ellis quickly found himself in an 0-2 count with two outs.

"I can't describe how it felt to be in that moment," Betancourt said. "Especially when I had Ellis at two strikes. I kept telling myself, 'I need just one strike.' I just threw the ball where [catcher] Victor [Martinez] wanted it. I was going with my best pitch in that situation."

His best pitch was a fastball that Ellis couldn't catch. And when Ellis swung and missed, Betancourt leapt off the mound and into Martinez's outstretched arms.

Despite all the distractions that came with injuries, April snowouts, lost off-days, reshuffled lineups and rotation adjustments, the Indians were finally champs.

After watching stadium workers raise the championship flag on a pole at the top of the scoreboard, the Indians retreated to a champagne-soaked clubhouse. It was there where Wedge reflected on a club that persevered through some unique situations to get to the promised land.

"It's about these guys," Wedge said. "You know what kind of journey it is. That's why you play so many games. Ultimately, to be a champion, you've got to overcome a lot, and our guys have."

Red Sox Clinch Playoff Berth

The first step towards solidifying a playoff berth was captured last night in Tampa as the Red Sox defeated the last place Devil Rays 8-6.

Tension and uneasiness stills reigns in Boston as the Yankees are making a late season surge at the division title for the ninth consecutive year. Boston has gone from a comfortable 14.5 game lead earlier in the season to a mere 2.5 game lead with just weeks remaining in the season. Still, they are the first team to clinch a postseason birth and they'll be playing in October for the first time since 2005.

With timely hitting and outstanding pitching it will be difficult for the Red Sox to be upended. A first-round matchup with the Indians looks to be imminent and that plays out well for the Sox.

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