OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – The Los Angeles Angels are going back to the playoffs, and this year they’ll have plenty of time to get ready.

Bengie Molina homered and Ervin Santana pitched 6 2-3 strong innings, helping the Angels clinch the AL West title with a 4-3 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday night.

The Angels arrived in Oakland on Monday needing two wins in the four-game series to wrap up the division crown, and they quickly took care of business. Los Angeles won the opener 4-3, then came back from an early one-run deficit Tuesday to eliminate the A’s from postseason contention.

When pinch-hitter Bobby Kielty flied out to left to end it, Molina jumped for joy and threw both arms in the air, then the Angels made a mad dash to the mound to celebrate.

Now the Angels get to relax a bit during their final five games and wait as four other teams fight for the AL’s three remaining playoff spots. Last year, they won the West by beating Oakland on the final weekend.

Santana (11-8) won his third straight start and the free-swinging Angels reached the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in franchise history – celebrating in the very place they captured the division title a year ago.

Juan Rivera added an RBI double, Robb Quinlan singled in a run and Chone Figgins had an RBI single as the Angels won the fifth division title in club history with their 10th win in 11 games.

Francisco Rodriguez allowed a leadoff homer to Marco Scutaro in the ninth, but recovered for his 16th straight save and 43rd overall.

Los Angeles led the division or shared the lead for all but five days after the All-Star break, overcoming several injuries and using an eight-game winning streak Sept. 16-24 to put themselves in prime position heading into the final week.

Santana, who started the season at Double-A Arkansas and also pitched for Triple-A Salt Lake, showed just why he made such a rapid ascent to the majors by delivering his most clutch performance yet.

He struck out seven and walked one, giving up seven hits.

“He stepped up and filled a huge void for us,” manager Mike Scioscia said.

The 22-year-old right-hander has the most victories by an Angels rookie since Jason Dickson won 13 games in 1997.

Joe Kennedy (3-5) lasted 3 2-3 innings.

Only four regulars and two starting pitchers remain from the Angels group that made an improbable run to the World Series title in 2002 as a wild-card team, beating the San Francisco Giants in seven games after rallying from a 5-1 deficit in Game 6.

Los Angeles is determined to erase the memory of its quick exit from the playoffs a year ago when the Angels – then called the Anaheim Angels – were swept in three games by the eventual World Series champion Boston Red Sox in the division series.

Dan Johnson doubled to left-center in the fourth for the A’s, scoring Bobby Crosby from first. Crosby grimaced as he sprinted from third to home, still nursing a broken left ankle. Crosby left the game in the top of the seventh with soreness in the ankle and was replaced at shortstop by Scutaro.

The A’s, out of wild-card contention, will miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season after four straight appearances from 2000-03. A dismal crowd of 18,416 watched as Oakland again struggled to score enough runs.

After a 7-20 May that featured two eight-game losing streaks, the A’s bounced back with another strong second half to make things interesting in the final month.

Notes: A’s RHP Rich Harden, pitching for the second time after missing more than a month with a strained muscle below his throwing shoulder, worked in relief and was clocked at 100 mph on his final pitch of the seventh. … Adam Melhuse made a rare start for the A’s, serving as the DH in place of struggling Scott Hatteberg, 1-for-22 on the homestand.

AP-ES-09-28-05 0049EDT

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