Angels A Big Test For Surging A's

The American League West is suddenly the best division in baseball and two of the hottest teams right now will square off in Oakland in an AL West showdown. The Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Angels begin a three-game series on Monday that will have plenty of Wild Card implications.

Once again, the Oakland A's are red hot.

They have won nine-straight games and have done it in impressive fashion. Unlike July, they have not needed the walk-off hit. The offense has gotten going early, which has helped the starting rotation to earn wins in each of their last eight games, compiling an ERA of 2.34 in the process.

Winning 15 of 17 games in the major leagues is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment, especially for a group as young as these A's. But it should be noted that timing and the schedule has been on the club's side.

Four of the A's last five series have come against teams trending downward. That included seven games against the Cleveland Indians – who have become one of baseball's worst teams since the All-Star break – and the Boston Red Sox, who are in a state of flux having lost six straight, finishing August with a record of 9-20.

To Oakland's credit, the team has taken care of teams it should beat. Now, they'll have to take on a team that's trending upwards and positioning itself for a September run towards the postseason.

The Angels come to Oakland having won nine of their last 12 games, despite falling in Sunday's series finale in Seattle, 2-1. Facing off in seven of their next 10, the A's and Angels will both be looking to improve their post-season position, with the A's currently holding a 5.5 game lead over the Halos. The A's lead the Wild Card race by two games over the Baltimore Orioles, who pace the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Angels, who are all within 3.5 games of the second Wild Card playoff spot.

Suddenly, the American League West title doesn't seem like the far-fetched proposition for the A's as it once was. The A's are just three games back of the Rangers and still have six games left to play against the current division leaders.

Over the last week, the Angels have seen a marked improvement with their pitching staff. Angels hurlers have allowed an ERA just above two after struggling for the majority of the second half. That doesn't bode well for the A's, who have put together a dismal 615 OPS against the Angels this season.

But the A's bats have also gotten better of late, with the team averaging eight runs per game during the nine-game win streak. Their surge in scoring is certainly welcomed after being at the bottom of most major offensive categories for much of the season. Both the A's and the Angels began the year ice cold at the plate, but both teams have been offensive juggernauts of late. Since the All-Star break, the Angels and A's are one-two in the American League in runs scored and one-three in team OPS.

Monday's Labor Day matinee will see a pair of lefties take the hill when C.J. Wilson (10-9, 3.86 ERA) goes against Tom Milone (11-9, 3.73 ERA). In his last start, Wilson earned his first victory in more than two months when he allowed three runs over six innings to the Red Sox. It has been a disappointing second half for the high-priced free agent, who signed in the offseason. He has a 6.56 ERA and 1.66 WHIP since the break.

Wilson last threw against Oakland on August 7, when he was chased from the game after throwing five innings and allowing six runs (although only three were earned). He was a victim of a two-run error in the third and also yielded a score on an infield single to shortstop in the fifth.

Milone was originally scheduled to throw over the weekend against Boston, but was pushed back to make room for A.J. Griffin to rejoin the rotation. Griffin got the win on Saturday by allowing just three hits in seven innings. The addition of Griffin to the rotation puts southpaw Travis Blackley back in the bullpen, despite having thrown well when called upon to start games this season.

Tuesday's second game will have a pair of talented right-handers go when Jarrod Parker (9-7, 3.72 ERA) and Zack Grienke (3-2, 4.82 ERA) square off. Parker has won his last two decisions and helped the A's earn wins in each of his last three starts. During that span, his ERA has improved to 3.79 after allowing 11 earned runs in his previous 17.1 innings.

The right-hander last faced the Angels on August 6, when Jered Weaver blanked the A's in a complete-game, four-hit effort. Parker allowed four runs on nine hits that night, but threw better than his numbers indicated. The Angels only scored in two of his innings. He threw into the seventh before exiting.

Grienke has been up and down since the Angels acquired him from the Brewers before the trading deadline. But he's won three of his last four decisions, including an outstanding performance against the Tigers, where he allowed a single run 7.2 innings in a 2-1 win.

The former Cy Young winner has added a cutter to his repertoire this season, which he's paired with his plus fastball and array of off-speed pitches. He has only allowed 10 hits and three runs in his last 14.2 innings and has amassed 12 strikeouts to just four walks.

Wednesday's final game of the series will feature veteran right-handers Brandon McCarthy (8-5, 3.10 ERA) and former A's All-Star Dan Haren (9-10, 4.58 ERA). Haren's numbers have declined drastically in the second half this year, which could be an indication that wear and tear is eventually catching up to him. The 10-year vet has thrown 1,841 innings over his career and hasn't thrown less than 200 in a season since he was with the Cardinals in 2004.

Haren has always been able to limit his walks throughout his time in the big leagues, but lately his offerings in the strike zone have been easier for the hitters to hit. He's set to allow more hits than innings thrown for just the third time in his career. His velocity is down, with his fastball averaging less than 90 miles per hour for the first time. With all of the innings he has accumulated over time, Haren is less reliant on his stuff than ever before, and might be a victim of his long-term durability.

In contrast, McCarthy has been far from durable in his two seasons with the A's while dealing pain in his throwing shoulder. But after stringing together five-consecutive healthy starts for the first time since April, McCarthy appears to be healthy and throwing well for the A's, having earned victories in his last two starts. McCarthy has only one start versus the Angels this season. He lasted seven innings but allowed five runs on 11 hits in a loss.

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