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HELENE ELLIOTT

Teixeira, Angels plan to keep the pedal to the metal

September 11, 2008|Helene Elliott

Mark Teixeira stood slightly apart from his Angels teammates, smiling almost wistfully while they danced and sprayed each other with beer and champagne and turned their clubhouse into a sodden mess of popped corks and empty bottles.

Though relatively early in the season it was late in the day to be celebrating: The Angels had beaten the New York Yankees, 4-2, but had to wait for the result of Texas' game at Seattle to learn whether they had clinched a tie for the American League West title or had won it outright.

Their patience was tested for nearly an hour and a quarter, and they spent most of it sprawled on the couches in the clubhouse watching on TV while the Rangers and Mariners traded the lead and pounded each other's pitchers.

For Teixeira, the wait was far longer. He had put up impressive numbers for five seasons but went home when the playoffs began, and those statistics brought him little comfort.

Maybe because he hasn't been an Angel for long -- he was acquired from Atlanta on July 29 by rookie General Manager Tony Reagins, the bold move that previous GM Bill Stoneman wouldn't make -- he had a unique perspective on what unfolded around him after Texas lost and the Angels earned their fifth playoff berth in seven seasons.

Teixeira, who sat out Wednesday's game because of a low-grade fever, learned two key lessons:

That champagne stings when it drips into your eyes, and that the Angels are determined not to be a one-round-and-out flash, as they were a year ago.

"I knew this team was so good that all we had to do was keep playing well. I'm not surprised that it's so early," Teixeira said after the Angels won the division in their 145th game, the earliest they have ever secured a playoff berth.

"This is a great team. We have everything we need. This team is built for a full-season run and that's what we're going to focus on."

There will be no slacking off, players said between champagne shampoos and beery face washes and gleefully wet blasts at one another, Manager Mike Scioscia and owner Arte Moreno.

They won't lose their sharpness in the three weeks between their rowdy celebration and their playoff opener, they insisted, often shouting to be heard over the loud music and shrieks that filled the clubhouse.

"No," infielder Chone Figgins said, "because our guys come to play every day. We're not going to sit a lot of guys every day. Guys are still going to come to play."

There is one overriding reason for them to play hard: to get home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Last season, the Angels lost four of their last six regular-season games and lost home-field advantage to the Boston Red Sox by two games. They opened at Boston and were crushed in both games, setting themselves up to be swept out of the best-of-five first-round series.

They're 5-1 at Boston this season but have historically struggled at Fenway Park, where they were 10-19 the previous six seasons. They were 1-5 at Tampa Bay this season, so giving the Rays the home-field edge could be perilous.

Why ease up now?

There's something to be said for cruising. Weary arms can be rested and aches and pains can be soothed so that they won't limp into the playoffs with key players hobbled.

The case for playing hard wins out, and Scioscia indicated that he won't let his team float through the last 17 games.

"There's a lot of games left to play and we're going to re-set some things but we're going to go out there every night to win," he said. "We have a little more time this year. But there's going to be no letting up. We're going to keep going hard."

Scioscia will have to figure out who will play second base and shortstop if hamstring problems continue to plague Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar. And he will have to set his bullpen, which could mean putting Jason Bulger or Kevin Jepsen on the roster over the ineffective Justin Speier.

"I like our depth. I think we have the potential here, once everybody gets in our lineup, to be the best team we've seen out here," Scioscia said.

"When the guys are healthy we're very deep on the offensive side. I think our pitching can match up with any team in our league and any team in baseball. We want to just get to a situation where we get everybody in the lineup and then see how it plays out."

Everything played out in the Angels' favor Wednesday.

"You know you have the best team and you know it's going to happen," Torii Hunter said, "but when it happens, it lets you know all the hard work you've done during the season, everything you went through, the ups and downs, when you get it done and finally got that clinched, I got chills up and down my body.

"It never gets old. I don't care how many times you do it. This is the best feeling in the world."

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com.

To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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