Playoff success all that matters to Angels

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- So here are the Los Angeles Angels, who pretty much clinched the American League West on Opening Day, who are so good opposing coaches tell closer Francisco Rodriguez, "We don't really like to play you guys," who might have the best owner in baseball and whose clubhouse might be the dullest thing this side of "Asparagus: The Documentary."

They're in the HOV lane for 90-plus victories and a fourth division title in the past five years. And if you can find a weakness in their everyday lineup, the Rally Monkey will wax and buff your car.

Here's the problem: The Angels have a habit of acing the compulsories but falling off the balance beam during the postseason program. Since winning the 2002 World Series, they've done playoff face plants in 2004 (Boston swept them in an AL Division Series), 2005 (Chicago won four of five in the AL Championship Series) and 2007 (another first-round, whisk-broom sweep by the Red Sox).

Angels outfielder Torii Hunter sits in front of his locker Thursday afternoon, a freshly poured cup of coffee at his feet, and listens patiently as I detail the playoff exits. Hunter is the guy who left the only franchise he had ever known (nearly 15 years in the Minnesota Twins' organization) for the one franchise he hoped would offer him a free-agent deal this past offseason -- the Angels. So yeah, it's sort of tough to convince Hunter, who literally scouted the Angels before signing a five-year, $90 million contract over the winter, that he might have made a career mistake.

"I'm not just out for money," Hunter says. "The money is the money. I grew up with nothing. You give me what you give me, that's fine. But you can either have $120 million and suck, and lose, and not be in the postseason, not get that ring you worked so hard to try to get. Or you can go get enough [money] and win. Right here is enough for me.

"I definitely feel like this team is built to win the World Series. Not just getting to the playoffs. I think we're built to win it."

The Angels know what it's like to pop corks and use champagne bottles like fire hoses. After all, they won the World Series in 2002. But that was pre-Arte Moreno, an owner so popular opposing players like New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera request photo ops with him.

Moreno bought the team in 2003, lowered beer prices, green-lighted the signing of Vladimir Guerrero, let his baseball people do their baseball things, OK'd the Hunter signing and happily approved the July 29 trade that brought rent-a-crusher Mark Teixeira from the Atlanta Braves. Good luck finding someone who doesn't like, respect or admire the Angels' owner.

"Arte's awesome," Hunter says. "First of all, he knows my name. [Twins owner Carl Pohlad] called me 'Kirby Puckett' sometimes."

Most of all, Moreno wants what Hunter wants: a championship. He'll come into the clubhouse, pull up a chair next to Hunter and say, "I need a ring. I want a ring."

Wanting and getting are two different things. The Angels are loaded, although the recent injuries to second baseman Howie Kendrick (placed on the DL Thursday with a strained left hamstring) and shortstop Erick Aybar (hamstring) could alter the postseason equation. Kendrick missed 42 games with a hamstring injury in 2007. Manager Mike Scioscia says this one isn't as bad, but hammies don't come with guarantees.

Let's say he'll be fine. Then we're talking about a lineup that goes Chone Figgins, Aybar, Teixeira, Guerrero, Hunter, Garret Anderson, Juan Rivera, Kendrick and catcher Jeff Mathis. All five starters in the pitching rotation have 10 or more wins (Joe Saunders leads with 14). And Rodriguez has as many saves as the Cleveland Indians and the Seattle Mariners combined.

"In the past, injuries have kept us pretty much out of the [World Series] race," Rodriguez says. "Right now, I feel like this is the year."

Rodriguez is talking about the 2007 ALDS. Anderson had an eye ailment. Guerrero was banged up. Gary Matthews Jr. had knee and ankle issues. And just like that, a 94-win season was rendered useless as the Red Sox outscored the Angels 19-4 in the three-game sweep. It was the Angels' seventh consecutive playoff loss.

This year, the Angels have the third-best record in baseball, although they've lost seven of their past 12 games. But they still have the best road record and were the first team to reach 60 wins this year. For what it's worth, the first team to 60 victories has advanced to the World Series in each of the past four seasons.

That's all that matters to the Angels these days. Ask Teixeira what he first thought of when told of his trade to L.A., and he says, "Playoffs."

Teixeira, who spent four-plus years in the AL with the Texas Rangers, used to love playing at Angel Stadium.

"But I hated facing that pitching staff," he says.

Now he's on their side -- at least until season's end. After that, he becomes a free agent, although the Angels are expected to make a serious negotiating run at him.

Teixeira homered Thursday night, his 28th of the year and eighth since the trade. That sort of power helps fill a pothole in the Angels' lineup. And even without Kendrick and Aybar, the Angels scored five eighth-inning runs (thank you, Rally Monkey) to overcome a Rangers lead. Rodriguez scuffled in the ninth but eventually earned his 51st save.

Scioscia won't discuss the upcoming postseason because, well, I guess he's worried about the Angels blowing a 16-game lead in the division with 29 games left. This is standard-issue Scioscia doctrine.

"Let's talk about it a month from now," says Scioscia, the manager Hunter calls a "brainiac."

A month from now will be the day after the end of the regular season. Then the playoffs will start. Hunter can already see it: a champagne fest, ring ceremonies, a Rose Garden presentation at the White House.

"I got that picture in my head," Hunter says. "But we got a long way to go, a long journey. When you get in the playoffs, everything is going to be different. … We could win 100-plus games, and it does not matter. When you get to the postseason, you got to change. You got to be totally different. Any mistake you make, you're going home."

The Angels can tell him all about it.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.