ANAHEIM, Calif. – They'll play the AL West into the final month, maybe the final days of the final month, and whatever comes of it will be the Los Angeles Angels' to bear.
They might not be the better team, might not be better situated in their starting rotation, and have yet to accomplish anything as a group. (The last time they were in the playoffs Chone Figgins was their best player, according to WAR, which we hadn't heard of yet.) And, really, this has little to do with the Oakland A's, who have become quite adept at this regular-season thing, and even pretty good at this first-four-games-of-the-division-series thing. They're better than the Angels 'til the Angels prove otherwise.
It's just that the Angels have had five years to prepare for this very September, what with Mike Trout all grown up, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton (mostly) in their primes, and Jerry Dipoto having now had ample time to construct a bullpen. They've spent the time, spent the money, stuck with Mike Scioscia in the lean years (and he with them, by the way), and now a single month of decent baseball stands between them and who they used to be.
When these four games at Angel Stadium are done, however they go, there'll only be September left, and with hardly anything separating them. The Angels can assume the A's will play well from there, for in the past two seasons the A's were a combined 39-19 after Aug. 31, both times leading to division titles. It doesn't mean the A's will play .672 ball this September, but it probably speaks to the way they'll go about those games, the way they always play their games, the way they'll hunt wins especially when the end is near.
The Angels beat the A's in 10 innings Thursday night. The game required three hours, 44 minutes to settle. One team – the A's – finished the game under protest. They'll be two games behind the Angels while the league office sorts through a controversial obstruction call in the bottom of the ninth inning, and likely will be as well when the league issues its decision. But, it made for great theater, for some honest debate, as the A's walked away feeling cheated and the Angels, well, they just walked away.
In the end, when Howie Kendrick rode a fastball well into right field and Pujols scored from third base, and as the Angels crowded onto the infield to celebrate a long day that ended well, what lingered was the question of what comes next. Have the Angels become this? Can they knock off the A's? Are they ready for this?
"You have to play the game," said Kendrick, one of a small handful of players left from a bygone time of Angels playoff teams. "You just have to play the game."
Take Thursday night.
A's starter Sonny Gray, the 24-year-old right-hander who'd made his chops in two brilliant starts against the Detroit Tigers last October, gave up three runs to the Angels in the second inning. By the end of the third inning, he'd thrown 64 pitches. By the fourth, 75 pitches. He was behind, 3-0. And yet, he was still standing out there in the seventh inning, striking out Kole Calhoun with his 103rd pitch, sending the A's into the eighth in what had become a 3-3 game.
Gray is 27 starts and now 178 innings into his first full big-league season. He pitched himself back into the game. He pitched to the minimum 12 batters from the fourth to the seventh innings. He was still game when the A's scored two in the fifth and one in the sixth inning, forging the tie. He was not at his best, and he made do.
Angels starter C.J. Wilson, the 33-year-old left-hander with a decade in the league, given a 3-0 lead into the middle innings, his pitch count more than reasonable, did not see the end of the sixth. By then, the A's had made some hard contact, talked him out of the strike zone, and by the time Gray was done the Angels had already used three relief pitchers.
These things are won an inch at a time. It's what the A's have been good at for two years and what the Angels have to grasp again.
Bad luck happens, and the season-ending injury to Garrett Richards certainly qualifies. As of this writing, as they had waded into the four-game series against the A's and were holding a one-game lead in the division, the Angels had their Saturday starter listed as TBD. Forty-eight hours before that game, Scioscia said, the Angels were considering "a couple ways we're going to go." The A's would go with Jeff Samardzija.
Meantime, the A's were rethinking their ninth inning, having lost closer Sean Doolittle last week to an intercostal strain. That's bad luck, too. On Wednesday night, they'd opted for Eric O'Flaherty, who earned his first major league save. Asked his preference during Doolittle's absence, however long that is, between a collection of closers or identifying one man, A's manager Bob Melvin said, "I'd rather get Doolittle back."
Before that, there will be more games like this one. Plenty more. And they'll be about playing the game, as Kendrick said, and holding up under the attrition of the season, along with the fatigue of September. It's what the A's have done so well. It's become who they are.
The Angels almost certainly believe the same of themselves. They'll know for sure soon enough.
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