Barry Zito is starting to pitch like the reigning Cy Young Award winner at the right time.
With the Oakland Athletics closing in on their third division title in four years, Zito looks to win his season-high third straight decision as the Athletics open a three-game series against the Texas Rangers at Network Associates Coliseum.
After going 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA to earn the AL Cy Young last season, Zito was inconsisent to start this season. He lost five straight decisions from July 18-Aug. 7, but has been victorious in five of his last seven decisions.
Zito won his last two starts with a 1.79 ERA, including a 2-1 decision at Anaheim on Wednesday. He pitched 8 1-3 innings of two-hit ball, walking two and striking out six.
“If I’m on my game, I have outings like this one,” he said. “But if you’re not confident and try to be too fine, you get behind in the count and guys hit you. It’s not as easy as you think to be confident every time out. It’s not as cut-and-dried. It’s a mental battle.”
The fourth-year pitcher is trying to avoid becoming the first starter since Bob Welch in 1991 to finish with a losing record a year after winning the Cy Young.
Zito is 10-0 with a 2.53 ERA in 16 career starts against Texas. The 10 victories are his most against any opponent.
The defending AL West champion Athletics lowered their magic number to three following Sunday’s 12-0 victory over Seattle. They extended their division lead over the Mariners to four games.
Mark Ellis hit his first career grand slam as the A’s avoided being swept at home for the first time since May 7-9 against Boston. Oakland has won nine of 12, and has the league’s best home mark at 54-24.
The Rangers ended their home schedule on a sour note, losing 11-6 to Anaheim on Sunday.
Rodriguez, who had a two-run blast, leads the majors with 47 homers.
STANDINGS: Rangers - 4th place, 22 1/2 GB, AL West. Athletics - 1st place, AL West.
RANGERS PROBABLE STARTER: Tony Mounce (1-4, 6.61 ERA). Since his lone victory on July 3 at Anaheim, Mounce has gone 0-2 in five starts. The rookie left-hander has allowed at least four runs in each of those outings, including the Rangers’ 6-5 home loss to Oakland on Sept. 14. The California native didn’t get the decision, giving up five runs and five hits over six innings. He walked one and struck out five. Mounce is 0-0 with a 3.24 ERA in three starts against the A’s this season.
ATHLETICS PROBABLE STARTER: Zito (13-12, 3.30 ERA). Zito is 3-0 with a 1.54 ERA in five starts against the Rangers this season.
OFFENSIVE LEADERS: Rangers - Young, .309 avg.; Rodriguez, 47 HRs, 117 RBIs, 122 runs and 16 SBs. Athletics - Eric Chavez, .279 avg.; Chavez and Miguel Tejada, 27 HRs; Tejada, 102 RBIs and 95 runs, Eric Byrnes and Tejada, 10 SBs.
SEASON SERIES: Athletics, 12-4.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Rangers - SS Rodriguez is batting .195 (8-for-41) with two homers and 10 RBIs aainst LHP Zito. … The Rangers finished with an AL-record 140 homers at home. … Texas has finished last in the AL West the past three seasons. Athletics - Oakland’s 12 runs Sunday doubled its combined total from the previous three games. … DH Erubiel Durazo, who has homered in four of his last eight games, is 4-for-6 with a double and three walks against LHP Mounce. … Despite leading the division, the A’s trail the Mariners in head-to-head matchups this season, 9-7. They’ll visit Seattle on Friday for three to close the season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Rangers - 27-48 on the road; Athletics - 54-24 at home.
INJURIES: Rangers - INF Herbert Perry (shoulder), 60-day DL; OF Juan Gonzalez (calf), 60-day DL; OF Rusty Greer (neck), 60-day DL; OF Kevin Mench (wrist), 60-day DL; RHP Chan Ho Park (back), 60-day DL; RHP Ricardo Rodriguez (hip), 60-day DL; RHP Jeff Zimmerman (elbow), 60-day DL. Athletics - LHP Mark Mulder (leg), 15-day DL; LHP Micah Bowie (elbow), 60-day DL.