Torii Hunter put on goggles, got on the clubhouse floor and began doing the butterfly and backstroke in a puddle of beer and champagne.
Hunter and the Los Angeles Angels had plenty to celebrate Wednesday.
They became the first team in the majors to clinch a playoff spot this season by winning their fourth AL West title in five years.
“I love it. I’m Michael Phelps,” Hunter bellowed, invoking the Olympic swimmer who won eight gold medals in Beijing. “This is what it’s all about.”
Francisco Rodriguez earned his 56th save in closing out the Angels’ 4-2 victory over the New York Yankees. Second-place Texas lost to Seattle 8-7 about an hour later, clinching the division for Los Angeles.
That set off mini-parties as the players emerged from the clubhouse to share their jubilation with several hundred fans who remained to cheer the final out in Seattle.
Hunter, who joined the Angels from Minnesota as a free agent during the offseason, began serving a two-day suspension Wednesday, so he wasn’t allowed on the field or in the dugout. Pitcher Justin Speier wore Hunter’s jersey on the field in his honor.
Stadium scoreboards flashed ‘2008 AL West champions’ and fans held up their own signs, including one that read ‘I want to go to the World Series.’
“It doesn’t get old,” longtime Angels star Garret Anderson said.
Team owner Arte Moreno came on the field, clapping his hands and repeatedly signaling thumbs-up to the red-clad fans. They responded with chants of “Arte! Arte!”
“Right now I’m more interested in how we finish up the season and get prepared to play in the playoffs,” he said. “Obviously, you always like to have home-field advantage.”
Pitcher Jered Weaver was the most exuberant, waving his cap and pumping his arms. A teammate poured beer into his mouth.
A couple players grabbed the hose behind the pitcher’s mound and turned it on, spraying their teammates and fans gathered behind the Angels’ dugout.
The Angels, with the best record in baseball, can now spend their final 17 games resting and setting up their rotation for the playoffs.
“There’s no such thing as too soon to clinch,” Hunter said. “We’ve been going hard to get to this point. It doesn’t matter if we clinch early or late, as long as we clinched.”
Los Angeles wrapped up the division without starters Chone Figgins (injured), Mark Teixeira (ill) and Hunter, who was suspended for helping trigger a bench-clearing scuffle with Yankees catcher Ivan Rodriguez on Monday.
The Angels will try to do something that none of their previous division-winning teams accomplished – reach the World Series. They won their first and only World Series title as a wild-card team in 2002, the year they knocked Hunter’s Minnesota Twins out of the playoffs.
Perhaps, there might even be the first Freeway Series this year – the Dodgers lead the NL West.
Like Hunter, Teixeira was thrilled to come to the Angels after years of playing with the Rangers in the same division.
“I’ve always been jealous of the Angels,” he said. “Some great players play their entire careers without ever getting a taste of the postseason, and I’m going to have that opportunity this year.”
Inside the clubhouse, manager Mike Scioscia grinned when pitcher Ervin Santana delighted in dumping more booze on his head. A couple players returned to the dugout, alternately spraying champagne on fans and chugging from the bottle.
“You can’t minimize how important this is,” Scioscia said. “It happened a little earlier than it has in other seasons, but it’s not easy getting to that first step, so we’re excited about going to the playoffs and we’re going to keep going.”
Robb Quinlan hit a go-ahead, two-run single in the fifth inning for the Angels.
Rodriguez pitched a scoreless ninth and moved within one save of Bobby Thigpen’s 18-year-old major league record. He threw a called third strike past Hideki Matsui with runners at first and third for the final out.
Dustin Moseley (2-4) allowed two runs and three hits in five innings while making a spot start for Weaver, whose injured fingers pushed him back to Thursday. Moseley struck out six and walked three in winning for the first time since April 9 against Cleveland.
Andy Pettitte (13-13) lost for the sixth time in his last nine starts. The left-hander gave up four runs and nine hits in 4 2-3 innings, tying his second-shortest outing of the season.
“It’s a bad feeling, especially when you work so hard to prepare yourself for the season and really prepare yourself for October,” he said. “Obviously, people think we’re out of the playoffs and guys think they’re out of the playoffs, but I’d hope they would play for some pride.”
The Yankees finished 5-5 on their four-city trip, making it likely they’ll miss the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. They head to New York for their final 10 games at Yankee Stadium.
“We started off the trip so well and we didn’t finish very well. That’s the frustrating part,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You have pride in what you do, and there’s no X by our name (in the standings), so there’s still a lot to play for. I still think out guys believe we have something to play for.”
Leading 2-1, Pettitte nearly got out of a bases-loaded jam in the fifth. After giving up consecutive singles to Gary Matthews Jr., Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero, he retired Juan Rivera and Kendry Morales on called third strikes.
Facing a full count, Quinlan lined a single to left, scoring two runs. Guerrero continued home on Xavier Nady’s throw that sailed over the head of third baseman Alex Rodriguez and into the netting for an error, allowing the Angels to take a 4-2 lead.
“He worked the count on me and fouled off tough pitches that I felt I had a chance to get him with,” Pettitte said. “I didn’t want to walk him, and I just kind of tugged it a little bit more over the middle of the plate than I wanted to and gave up a hit to him.”
New York scored both of its runs in the first on Jason Giambi’s RBI single and a balk by Moseley that allowed Bobby Abreu to score from third.
The Angels scored their first run on Rivera’s RBI groundout in the first.