Keep an eye on how Angels set up their bullpen

If Angels manager Mike Scioscia should have one major concern these days, it's celebration overload.

On Wednesday, the Angels went over-the-top bonkers after winning the American League West, letting out all their pent-up anxiety after squeaking to a 17½-game lead over the Rangers.

On Thursday, Angels players feted Francisco Rodriguez for tying Bobby Thigpen's saves record, and Saturday they were mobbing K-Rod again after he recorded his 58th save, earning sole possession of the record by nailing down a 5-2 win over the Mariners.

With the champagne consumed and the backslaps concluded, Scioscia can turn to his real task: setting up the Angels for another World Series run.

Having concluded the earliest division clinching since the Braves did so on Sept. 9, 2002, and the earliest ever in the AL West, the Angels have some time to play with. That should help in letting two key players heal from injuries: shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howie Kendrick, both of whom are nursing left hamstring strains.

But Scioscia also has his eye on an important prize: the best record in the American League and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The AL pennant winner has already earned home-field advantage in the World Series, thanks to the league's victory in the All-Star Game.

The Angels learned last year the importance of avoiding a late letdown. They dropped four of their final six regular-season games, which allowed the Red Sox to beat them out for the home-field advantage. The Red Sox then went out and swept the Angels in the best-of-five Division Series, winning the first two games at Fenway Park.

The biggest threat looming to the Angels' current hold on the league's best record is Tampa Bay, which began Sunday's play with an 88-58 record, two games behind the Angels (91-57). Home field could be vital if the two teams wind up meeting in the ALCS. Not only is Tampa Bay the best home team in the league at 53-21, but they have won five of six over the Angels at The Trop.

"There's a lot of games left to play and we're going to reset some things, but we're going to go out there every night to win,'' Scioscia told reporters in the wake of the Angels' division-clinching win. "We have a little more time this year. But there's going to be no letting up. We're going to keep going hard."

The schedule is in their favor: The Angels play only teams with losing records the rest of the way -- AL West foes Seattle (five games, including today's, as they try to complete a four-game sweep), Texas (six games) and Oakland (three). That's a trio of lackluster division rivals that the Orange County Register referred to as "The Three Stooges."

One thing to watch closely is how Scioscia sets up his bullpen behind Rodriguez. There is growing speculation that call-up Kevin Jepsen, an Olympian who throws in the upper 90s, might make the playoff roster. Scioscia likes that Jepsen thrived in the pressure of the Olympics, and had to have been impressed when Jepsen made his major league debut against the Yankees last week and retired Derek Jeter, Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez. And then did it again two days later, striking out A-Rod with a 95 mph heater.

Jepsen's debut brings to mind the saga of K-Rod in 2002, when Rodriguez made his major league debut on Sept. 18 and struck out 13 in his first 5 2/3 innings. The Angels put the rookie on their postseason roster, and he was a huge factor in their run to a World Series title.

It's possible Jepsen and another impressive rookie, Jose Arredondo, could join Scot Shields as the set-up men to get the ball to K-Rod in the postseason. That would mean less of a role for the struggling Justin Speier.

• The home team at Milwaukee's Miller Park today is the hottest team in baseball, making a furious, gutsy run toward a playoff berth.

Unfortunately for the local fans, that team is the Houston Astros, not the stumbling Brewers. The Astros, winners of six straight, meet the Cubs in the first makeup of the weekend series scheduled for Houston but forced to relocate by the devastation of Hurricane Ike. The two teams will play again in Milwaukee on Monday, with the final game to be played Sept. 29 in Houston, if needed.

It's not an ideal situation for Houston to lose two home games, particularly with the Milwaukee venue sure to entice a load of Cubs fans. The Astros will lose an estimated $3 million in revenue by forgoing two big gates against the Cubs. Other neutral sites that were considered were Minneapolis, Atlanta and Cincinnati, but Milwaukee's roof -- which insulates it from more weather delays -- was the deciding factor.

The Brew Crew, meanwhile, will be playing two huge games in Philadelphia as they try to hold on to their wild-card lead against the onslaught not only of the Astros, who began the day 2½ games behind, but also the Phillies. With their 7-3 win over Milwaukee on Saturday, the Phils are now just two games behind the Brewers in the wild-card race, giving them another avenue to the postseason if they can't catch the Mets. Philadelphia can catch the Brewers, who have lost nine of 12, with a sweep today. Joe Blanton takes on Dave Bush in the opener, with Brett Myers taking on Jeff Suppan in the second game.

• There's no better gift in a pennant race than facing a collapsing team like the Orioles -- twice, no less -- and the Twins took full advantage Saturday, sweeping Baltimore by scores of 12-2 and 12-6. That pulled the Twins into a virtual tie with the rained-out White Sox, who now hold a one-percentage-point lead in the AL Central.

The White Sox again try to play a doubleheader against the Tigers today at U.S. Cellular Field.

• While the Red Sox gear up for their three-game showdown with the Rays that starts Monday in Tampa, you can't do much better than today's pitching matchup at Fenway: Jon Lester (14-5) vs. Roy Halladay (18-10).

If anyone stands between Cliff Lee and the Cy Young -- unlikely as that may be -- it's Halladay, who may be pitching to save the Jays' season after the Blue Jays suffered a tough 7-5 loss in the second game of Saturday's doubleheader. The Jays led 5-4 heading into the bottom of the eighth and were envisioning a doubleheader sweep that would have pulled them within 5½ games of Boston. But the Red Sox scored three runs in the eighth to pull out the win and move 7½ games ahead of Toronto.

In the second game for Boston, Bartolo Colon came back after three months on the disabled list with a back injury to work six innings. He gave up five runs in the second inning (just two of them earned), but blanked the Jays in his other five innings of work.

• The Mets figured to get at least a split of a doubleheader Saturday against Atlanta with Johan Santana working the opener. And split they did. But the Mets fell 3-2 in Santana's game as their bullpen failed yet again to hold a lead for him, and won the nightcap 5-0 behind eight strong innings from 21-year-old rookie lefty Jonathon Niese.

Niese, who had been hit hard by Milwaukee in his big league debut on Sept. 2, scattered six hits and struck out seven.

• The Rays lost a golden opportunity to put some distance between themselves and Boston on Saturday when they dropped the second game of a doubleheader with the Yankees 6-5.

But the day did have a hugely encouraging development for the Rays: Third baseman Evan Longoria played for the first time since fracturing his right wrist on Aug. 7. He went 2-for-5 in the first game of the doubleheader, a 7-1 Tampa win, including a two-run single. He also made a sensational diving stop and throw to thwart a Yankees rally in the sixth inning.

Longoria didn't start the second game, as planned, but he did cut his hair, giving himself a Mohawk between games.

Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.