When the Angels were in Boston in August, several players asked veteran infielder John McDonald to bring the World Series ring he won with the Red Sox last season from his home in Scituate, Mass., to Fenway Park.
They wanted to see it, to touch it, to imagine what it would be like to slip such a hefty, diamond-encrusted ornament on their fingers.
“It was pretty cool,” center fielder Mike Trout said. “That’s what you play for. You want to get that ring.”
The Angels are a long way from being sized for such fine jewelry. The postseason is a three-round, month-long grind, a grueling test of talent, will and endurance that can stretch to 19 games and requires 11 victories to hoist that championship trophy.
But they took a huge step toward that goal Wednesday night, clinching their first American League West title since 2009 by beating Seattle, 5-0, and then watching Texas rally for six runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 win over Oakland.
C.J. Wilson gave an injury plagued rotation — and the team’s World Series hopes — a huge boost by giving up one hit in seven innings, and C.J. Cron highlighted a five-run seventh with a prodigious three-run home run.
Their magic number reduced to one, the Angels returned to their clubhouse with the A’s leading the Rangers, 1-0.
But with the Texas-Oakland game on the Angel Stadium video board and chants of “Let’s go Rangers!” rising among the 5,000 fans who remained, J.P. Arencibia crushed a three-run home run to key the Rangers’ ninth-inning rally.
When the A’s game was over, a huge roar erupted and fireworks were set off. Goggle-wearing players spent several minutes spraying champagne and beer on themselves in the clubhouse and then took the party onto the field, where they sprayed fans with alcohol on a victory lap around the stadium.
“It’s pretty awesome, a great feeling,” said Albert Pujols, who won two World Series titles with St. Louis. “It’s a better feeling when you hold the trophy at the end. That’s what we’re working for.”
Trout’s eyes were soaked with tears, champagne, or both, and at one point during the celebration he fell backward into a crowd of fans for a group hug.
“Unbelievable,” Trout screamed. “I can’t explain this feeling right now.”
By winning their sixth division title since 2004 and ninth in franchise history, the Angels will go directly to the best-of-five AL division series, which begins Oct. 2, and avoid the one-game, wild-card knock-out round.
“You’ve got to avoid that,” Wilson said.
Since they won’t have to burn ace Jered Weaver in a wild-card game, they can start the right-hander twice in the first round.
Matt Shoemaker’s playoff availability is in question because of a rib-cage strain he suffered Monday night, but if the enigmatic Wilson, who needed only 66 pitches to get through his first six innings Wednesday, emerges as a solid No. 2 starter, the Angels title hopes would improve dramatically.
“It’s been four years since we’ve been here, but it feels like yesterday,” reliever Kevin Jepsen said. “This is where we belong.”
The Angels’ coronation as run-away division champ capped a remarkable five-week blitz in which they went 27-8 to go from four games behind Oakland on Aug. 10 to 111/2 games up on Wednesday.
And that was after the Athletics added ace Jon Lester to an already formidable rotation at the July 31 trade deadline and the Angels lost left-hander Tyler Skaggs (July 31, elbow surgery) and their best pitcher, right-hander Garrett Richards (Aug. 20, left-knee surgery), to season-ending injuries.
Weaver and Shoemaker, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008 and spent six years in the minor leagues, held the rotation together, and the Angels filled Richards’ spot with a bullpen-by-committee.
The Angels have been resilient, leading baseball with 45 comeback wins, but an offense that was dormant for three weeks after the All-Star break came alive in early September, averaging 8.6 runs a game and batting .329 during a 10-game winning streak that buried the A’s.
“It’s bittersweet, it’s tough not being able to contribute,” Richards said. “But for them to come together as a team and to overcome this is awesome. I couldn’t be any more proud of these guys.”
There was early-season adversity, as well. The Angels lost cleanup batter Josh Hamilton for most of the first two months and leadoff man Kole Calhoun for five weeks of April and May. Their bullpen was a mess, with a 4.46 earned-run average and 12 blown saves in 28 opportunities through June 21.
Joe Smith stabilized the ninth inning when he replaced the struggling Ernesto Frieri as closer in late June, and General Manager Jerry Dipoto fortified the bullpen by trading Frieri to Pittsburgh for veteran right-hander Jason Grilli on June 27 and acquiring proven closer Huston Street from San Diego on July 18.
Those additions, combined with the continued dominance of Smith and Jepsen and the emergence of rookie right-hander Mike Morin, transformed a shaky bullpen to a deep and dependable unit that has posted a 2.74 ERA and converted 27 of 31 save opportunities since June 24.
“The overwhelming reason why we’ve made a push is our ability to hold leads,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “I think from the middle of the season to now, it’s been one of the best bullpens in the league.”