Angels shine under huge spotlight

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The Oakland A's have been problematic for the Anaheim Angels for so many years (think the early '70s, late '80s, and the last few seasons) that you'd have thought this was a bigger deal than it was. The Angels had slain the AL West's lead dragon, and it should have been cause for great joy.

And it was. Just not great, great joy. Having a World Series ring can render history pretty well inert.

"Celebrating here?" Troy Glaus said after Anaheim won the West and eliminated the A's from the playoffs for the first time in five years. "You want to be celebrating anywhere."

Indeed, the celebration inside the Angel clubhouse was slightly muted, even though this was the franchise's first divisional title in 18 years. For one, they did stand over the baseball world two years ago like a man who worried about his pants gathering in the wrong place.

And for two, they must have sensed this was coming. They were the ones playing the best ball down the stretch. They were the ones with the soul-crushing bullpen. They were the ones with the lineup built around Vladimir Guerrero. They were the ones who dared to extract a skilled irritant so close to season's end and turn it into a masterstroke.

They were, in short, the best team this division had to offer, and they proved it when it mattered most. Saturday's 5-4 win, made possible in part by one final Oakland bullpen meltdown, was simply justice applied harshly and truly.

Even Octavio Dotel, the Oakland closer, acknowledged the basic correctness of developments.

"Everything is going on their side," he said. "Everything is going to be on their side right now. The way they're playing, I think they'll be in the World Series."

That remains an open question, of course; America surely doesn't want to see Game 1 of the Series held up by the Illinois-Minnesota football game, but the Twins also have the starters and the bullpen and the lineup, and the Yankees and Red Sox have been analyzed down to a thin gray paste.

But the point is that the Angels are the best fourth the rest of the league could offer up; fact is, even if the A's had managed to survive the weekend, they would have been ill-prepared for the Red Sox -- doomed in advance, even.

Saturday's game showed these two points unambiguously. The A's got a two-run double from Eric Chavez to take the early lead, and RBI hits from Damian Miller and Marco Scutaro to regain it, but the Angels didn't let either deficit sit long. Guerrero homered to nearly dead center field to tie the game at 2, and exploited the A's bullpen, its Achilles femur (heel just isn't big enough) all year long, for three more runs in the eighth.

And then Francisco Rodriguez and Troy Percival overwhelmed -- overwhelmed, I tell you -- the A's in the eighth and ninth. No chance. No discussion. No way out but home.

This was more than just a good reason to celebrate the practical end of a successful regular season. This was a statement of sorts by the Angels, that they are well-built, that they are tournament-ready, and that even nagging problems like the Jose Guillen tire fire only makes them better, in the room and on the grounds.

As for the A's, well, this will be a winter of harsh reassessment. They were barely a two-dimensional team, pitching and fielding, and they did neither very well in September. They set a team record for hits, but led all but their geographical brethren in San Francisco in men left on base, and ranked only ahead of Toronto in average with runners in scoring position. They blew as many saves as the Giants, Indians, Reds and Tigers, and didn't score in double digits enough times to offset the high number of one- and two-run games they played in (79).

In other words, they wasted what they had and failed to hide what they didn't. They won 90 games with what is essentially an 83-win team, and got to the season's penultimate day when by rights they should have been eliminated the same day as the White Sox.

But in overachieving to stay in the race as long and as well as they did, the A's also served to show the Angels in their best light, as a team that maybe should have won more than they did, but now are just like the Yankees and Red Sox and Cardinals and Braves.

Eleven wins away from paradise.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com