A's-Angels rivalry hinges on swing theory

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels invariably have found each other over the past five seasons, crammed as they are into the game's only four-team division, separated merely by a long, dreary stretch of Interstate 5 and the NoCal-SoCal carryings-on of their fan bases.

The franchises have finished one-two in the American League West in each of the past three seasons and in four of the past five. Since 2002, one World Series title (the Angels in '02) is the difference in a series that in that time is tied at 49 wins apiece, including the A's 4-3 win here Thursday night.

True to their recent offensive agendas, the latest turned on an A's home run (Mike Piazza's first for them) and an Angel on the basepaths (rookie Erick Aybar foiled by Bob Geren's suspicions, Huston Street's slide step and Jason Kendall's precise throw).

"It felt like last year never ended," Geren, the A's first-year manager, said afterward. "Typical A's-Angels game."

So it was, the 38th one-run game between the two in five years and a day, and another night that swayed in the minute details of players who know each other well and others who are fresh to the fight.

"We've got 18 left with these guys?" Piazza said. "If this is an indication, I'm going to need a lot of Rolaids."

They are not New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox glamour, or Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants longevity, or Chicago's Northsider-Southsider proximity.

But, what the A's and Angels lack in A-Rod vs. Varitek at the plate, they hold in Kendall vs. John Lackey on the mound, as of last May's tussle. What they lack in lore, they possess in urgency. And what they lack in neighborhood, they stack in familiarity.

"We see them so much," Angels left fielder Garret Anderson said. "You know their tendencies. You have an idea where they're going to hit the ball."

It is an underrated rivalry kept alive by pitching – the ERA disparity between them has only once in five years been greater than a fifth of a run – and made fascinating by their opposing offensive philosophies, the A's constructed through Billy Beane's Moneyball-istic leanings, the Angels run through Mike Scioscia's National League upbringing.

They have scored in remarkably similar numbers in those five seasons, but the A's have hit 130 more home runs, drawn 639 more walks and struck out 415 more times, while the Angels have stolen 465 more bases.

Two paths, two attitudes, same consequence.

"It just goes to show you there's more than one way to get it done," Anderson said.

So it was Thursday night with two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of another one-run game, Aybar at first base and Reggie Willits batting.

At the railing in the A's dugout, Geren turned to two coaches, Rene Lachemann and Bob Schaefer.

He asked, "Do you think they'll take a shot right here?"

They nodded.

"All three of us agreed," Geren said. "Yes, they will. They're the Angels."

Geren ordered the slide step from Street, knocking two-tenths of a second off his delivery, and Aybar ran into the end of the game.

Likewise, though they hit two home runs themselves, the Angels wouldn't be surprised to see the A's turn to their power when the game was in the balance.

Whether by nature or nurture, it seems the game isn't over until Nick Swisher or Eric Chavez or, now, Piazza take one more shot at the fences, and until Chone Figgins or Orlando Cabrera or, now, Aybar take one more shot on the bases.

"I think in the Moneyball philosophy and the statistics I know they look at internally, these are the things they believe are important to overall offense," Scioscia said. "It also more pertains to the personnel they have on the team. … We value on-base percentage, but with our lineup it's not good enough just to get on base. We need to maximize it. That's why we've had to get a little more creative."

Under Geren, the A's appear more interested in starting runners than they did under predecessors Art Howe and Ken Macha. Still, the notions of the hit-and-run, the stolen base, the contact play off third, the sacrifice bunt and the hell-bent first-to-third are Angels characteristics, not A's.

"If it's a low-scoring game, they have that threat of turning a walk into a double or triple," Geren said. "And if they do get some momentum going, they can run you out of the game, too."

The Angels strive to hit the ball and challenge the defense. The A's more often hit the ball over the defense. Or, better, take a walk and then do it.

For that reason, the Angels have passed on Piazza as a free agent the past two offseasons, while the A's were glad to have him, just as they were Frank Thomas the winter before. And, the Angels can live with Figgins or Maicer Izturis at third, because of their defense and the type of offense in which they fit.

"Anaheim plays a game that's more aggressive," said Gary Matthews Jr., who played three seasons in Texas before signing with the Angels in the offseason. "Obviously, you know their baserunners are going to be very aggressive.

"The A's, they seem to make you nervous in the later innings. In Texas, they always seemed to get that key man on, a key walk, and then Scutaro hits a dunk in front of you. Then Frank Thomas is standing up there."

Then, ultimately, the whole thing gets back to pitching, from the Big Three that slowly dwindled to none in Oakland, to an emerging starting rotation in Anaheim, to two typically strong bullpens.

"Everybody keeps talking about the big bat we need," Matthews said. "I don't see it that way. We had all the big bats you'd want in Texas and every October we were sitting at the house, chillin'."

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