A day after the Angels achieved their team goal by winning the American League West title, they got closer to one of their individual goals.
Francisco Rodriguez equaled Bobby Thigpen’s major league record of 57 saves when the Angels defeated the Seattle Mariners, 7-4, on Thursday night at Angel Stadium.
“I have to give credit to my teammates,” Rodriguez said. “I’d be really, really selfish if I said I set it by myself. But that’s what I get paid for. That’s my job right there.”
So now what?
After becoming the first manager to win a playoff berth this season and the first in history to win an AL West title before mid-September, Mike Scioscia found himself contemplating that very question.
Not that it was a bad question to have to answer, mind you. It’s just that it’s a new one for Scioscia, who has won four division titles and a World Series since 2002 but, until now, had never clinched a playoff berth before the final week of the season.
“It’s great to at least get to this level where we made our first goal: We’re in the playoffs,” Scioscia said. “And there are more challenges and opportunities here before the end of the season that we’re going to definitely get after.”
Still to be won, however, is home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Angels can earn that by finishing with the best record in the American League, something the franchise has never done. And with Rodriguez finishing a night that started with Jered Weaver pitching six shutout innings, the Angels now have a baseball-best 89 victories this season.
But another challenge is getting to October healthy and rested. And that’s the one Scioscia said he’s focused on.
“Home-field advantage is important. [Just] not at the risk of going to the playoffs with a team that’s banged up,” Scioscia said. “It’s not worth that risk.”
Which sets up the most perplexing challenge of all: how to keep his players sharp, yet rested.
“There is some strategy involved,” offered Norm Charlton, the Mariners’ bullpen coach.
Charlton should know. In 2001 he pitched for a Seattle team that tied a major league record by winning 116 games, securing the division title with 2 1/2 weeks left in the season. But days before the Mariners clinched, they lost third baseman David Bell to a strained muscle in his side and days after clinching they lost shortstop Carlos Guillen to tuberculosis.
Weakened, the Mariners lost the AL Championship Series to the Yankees.
“I’m sure Mike’s been thinking about it,” Charlton said. “He’s in a great situation right now. He has the ability to play these guys as much as he wants and he can give guys rest.”
That was an option Scioscia didn’t have last year, when the division race went down to the second-to-last weekend of the season and the Angels limped into the playoffs without one starting outfielder (Gary Matthews Jr.) and with two others (Vladimir Guerrero and Garret Anderson) hobbled. Not surprisingly, they were swept by Boston in the division series.
“Clinching early, it’s a straight positive,” said outfielder Torii Hunter, who played on four division winners in Minnesota before joining the Angels this season. “With the Twins, we’d grind it out for 162 games, that’s when we’d clinch. Every year . . . we had three days before we played in the playoffs. Mentally we were done.”
And then of his new team, Hunter added: “You’ve got to do something different than last year, right? It didn’t work last year.”
But not everyone is asking for time off. At least not yet.
Less than 24 hours after a raucous champagne-and-beer-fueled celebration of their AL West championship, more than a dozen Angels -- including starters Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez, Kendry Morales, Juan Rivera and Matthews -- were on the field taking early batting practice.
And then seven hours later, there was Rodriguez, sprinting in from the bullpen for his date with history, turning a game that meant nothing in the standings into one that meant everything for history.
Because while a division title is nice, as Norm Charlton knows, it’s not the ultimate prize.
“That’s only the first step,” Rodriguez said.