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'Special' Angels Ready for Pressure of Having Target on Their Backs in Playoffs

Karl Buscheck@@KarlBuscheckContributor IIISeptember 16, 2014

AP Images

The Los Angeles Angels are cruising toward October. And now, they know for sure that they will be playing in it, after becoming the first team in MLB to clinch a playoff berth on Monday night.

ANGELS IN THE PLAYOFFS! Angels are 1st team to clinch postseason berth after 8-1 win over Mariners. pic.twitter.com/J7Ut4lACYc

— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 16, 2014

C.J. Wilson certainly isn't surprised that the American League West front-runners are sporting the best record in baseball.

“This is the team we've felt like we've always had,” Wilson said in a conversation with Bleacher Report.

As the 33-year-old admits, it's taken the club a while to reach this point. The Angels have inked a collection of prominent names to lucrative contracts in recent years but haven't made a trip to the postseason since 2009. That means that big expectations are nothing new for the squad.

“The target on our back, I think as soon as Albert [Pujols] came over here there was a target on the Angels' back. That's the way I look at it,” Wilson said.

This year, Pujols has clocked 36 doubles and 26 home runs while driving in 97 runs. Aside from all the production that the 34-year-old has been providing on the field, he's also been dispensing wisdom in the clubhouse.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

“I think Albert, having won a couple of World Series, is probably one of the best guys you could have in a locker room," Wilson said. "He's a commanding presence, and if he gets up and says something, everyone's going to listen. He has the respect of everybody. He's one of the best players of all time.”

Center fielder Mike Trout is another Angel who could eventually enter into that conversation.

“He's one of the best players that I've ever seen,” Wilson said of the 23-year-old.

The veteran doesn't think Trout will have any trouble stepping up to the challenge of playoff baseball.

“[He just has to] make sure he doesn't try and hit the ball 700 feet and hit a home run every time,” he said.

Wilson pointed to the energy that Trout and the rest of the team's rising stars offer as a crucial component of Los Angeles' success.

“I think the biggest thing is that we have enough young guys that are really good," he said. “They're just so excited. It's their enthusiasm that really carries us.”

It also doesn't hurt that everyone on the roster gets along.

“We get on the bus and we joke, we're funny in the clubhouse, everybody's having a good time in the dugout. And that's the kind of vibe that you need to have where if you have a loss you just, everybody shakes it off.”

The team has also managed to shake off the loss of one of the best pitchers in he AL. On August 20, Garrett Richards' season came to a crashing halt when the starter tore his left patellar tendon while covering first base in a game against the Boston Red Sox.

“I think any time you lose a pitcher, especially a guy that's got the kind of stuff that Garrett has, your chances take a little bit of a hit,” Wilson said.

"Little" is the key word. Since then, the Angels have continued to roll right along.

“But it's a team sport, and the starting pitchers, no matter how good or bad they are, only pitch once every five days,” Wilson said. “Garrett got hurt, and it was almost a blip on the radar.”

One reason that the Angels were able to put that loss behind them so quickly is that the team literally never skipped a beat. Despite the fact that Richards was injured in the second inning, the Angels ended up stomping the Red Sox 8-3.

“That gave us a lot of confidence because we're like, 'Okay, our season isn't over because the pitcher with the lowest ERA got hurt. We can still go out there and win. We still have everyone else that can go out there and play.' ”

Rookie Matt Shoemaker definitely fits that description. 

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 10:  Matt Shoemaker #52 of the Los Angeles Angels between innings against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington on September 10, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

“If you look at his stats on their own, they stand out. He's a fantastic pitcher,” Wilson said.

The 27-year-old scooped up the AL Pitcher of the Month and Rookie of the Month honors in August after going 6-1 with a 1.31 ERA in seven outings. On the year, Shoemaker owns a 16-4 mark with a 3.04 ERA.

Wilson believes that Shoemaker's diverse array of pitches will make him a dangerous arm when the postseason arrives.

“He's got a really good split finger, which a lot of guys don't throw anymore, and he's also got a really good sinker.

“I think those two pitches in October play really well because you are used to seeing guys all year that are four-seam fastball, fire-baller guys.”

Another key factor in overcoming the loss of Richards has been the front office's ability to bolster the bullpen via trade.

“We got really lucky," Wilson said. "Jerry Dipoto our GM brought over a bunch of really good relief pitchers this year and those guys have been huge contributors.”

No move looms larger than the acquisition of closer Huston Street. Of course, the Angels weren't the only AL West club that was working the phones this summer. The Oakland Athletics landed Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester among others before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Plus, Oakland added Adam Dunn on the final day of August.

As Wilson explained, there's no point focusing on what their division rivals are up to.

“You can't control what the other teams do. We're only doing what we're capable of, which is winning the games that we play in.”

The Angels did just that in a decisive four-game sweep over the Athletics at the end of August in Anaheim.

“We've been fortunate to beat Oakland head-to-head a couple of times, but we had a hard time playing at their place. So, when we play them at home we feel like we do pretty well. When we play them at their place, we lose close games sometimes,” Wilson said.

The Angels and Athletics are set to face off in three-game set at the O.co Coliseum in Oakland from September 22-24. While the Angels' 10.5-game lead ensures that the series won't have any impact on how the AL West race plays out, Wilson knows that the team hasn't seen the last of the Athletics.

“We're going to have to beat them at some point," he said. "We're going to have to beat them at the end of the season or maybe in the first round if they're the wild-card winners.”

Whomever the Angels end up facing in the postseason, Wilson recognizes that crunch time is rapidly approaching.

“It doesn't matter whether it's against Jeff Samardzija or Felix Hernandez or Max Scherzer, we just have to go out there and beat those guys. If we don't beat those guys, then we lose and our season is over.”

Still, Wilson likes the Angels' chances.

“I think what we have right now is a very special team and that's why everyone is really excited. Because we all know that this is a great chance for us to do something historic for the city and for the organization.”

As Wilson and the Angels prepare to make their playoff run, the lefty has also been making an impact off the diamond through the Head & Shoulders Season of the #Whiff campaign.

“It's great. Being a pitcher obviously, getting whiffs is part of my job,” he said. "We're trying to raise money, get kids out there that wouldn't necessarily get a chance and I think that's the best thing...As a baseball player, knowing that you can give back to your sport and the future of your sport is a huge motivating factor for me."

Last season, Head & Shoulders donated over $140,000 to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program by encouraging fans to tweet #whiff every time their favorite pitcher racked up a punchout. This year, Head & Shoulders will donate $1 for every strikeout in 2014, and the seven MLB teams with the most #whiff tweets each month (fans simply tweet #whiff + [team Twitter handle]) win donations for their local RBI leagues.

If you want to talk baseball, find me on Twitter @KarlBuscheck.