A's have arms for an October run
OAKLAND -- Here is an unexpected plot twist as a season full of surprises narrows to its final days. If the Athletics make it to the postseason in the mad scramble that is the American League Wild Card chase, they will be dangerous. Armed and dangerous.
Reaching October is the challenge for a team that was the best in the Majors for more than four months before an offensive trance enabled the Angels to surge to the AL West title. Now here stand the A's, leading the AL Wild Card race by a game over the Royals and three games over the Mariners.
The A's have been through hard times, testing their resolve, but they hold their fate in their own hands. They showed some life on Monday night in an 8-4 decision over the Halos, getting a playoff-caliber start from Jeff Samardzija.
The "Shark" yielded a first-inning unearned run across seven innings. Albert Pujols' three-run homer in the eighth came against reliever Evan Scribner. Samardzija hasn't allowed an earned run in the past 23 innings.
"It means a lot," said Samardzija, the former Notre Dame wide receiver who elevates his team's mood with his emotions on display. "I don't take anything for granted; I learned that early in life. Nothing is free. Everything's on the line. We've been playing playoff games the last two or three weeks."
In the AL at the moment, no team can load up a rotation to match Oakland's. The Tigers have the star power, but only Max Scherzer has been consistently effective in the big three with Justin Verlander and David Price. The Mariners appeared to have a gold-plated rotation, but it is suddenly spinning improperly behind Felix Hernandez.
For a potential AL Wild Card Game in which the winner moves on, the A's will have Jon Lester, an October star as recently as 11 months ago for the champion Red Sox. He has been rock solid since arriving in the East Bay in the controversial deal costing Oakland Yoenis Cespedes' loud bat and feared arm.
Samardzija, acquired in a trade with the Cubs, is as tough as a $5 steak, an ideal No. 2 starter. When smooth Sonny Gray is right, he can deal with anyone. Scott Kazmir has struggled lately, but the lefty is capable of finding his groove and delivering seven strong innings. Jason Hammel provides the luxury of a proven fifth starter.
"This is arguably -- and I will argue it a long time -- as good as any rotation in the game," said Adam Dunn, the slugger who left Chicago's other team, the White Sox, for the A's. "Good pitching beats good hitting. When you've got five guys who are as good as ours, you like your chances."
The Angels' rotation, conversely, feels uncomfortably iffy. It's pretty much Jered Weaver and ... all right, let's take inventory here.
Maybe C.J. Wilson will get his stuff together and flourish, as he did against the Mariners the night the Halos clinched the division. Perhaps Matt Shoemaker will come back in fine form from his rib cage ailment. Maybe Hector Santiago will relax and meet the challenge. But those are all questions behind the dependable, always underrated Weaver.
While Samardzija was showing the Angels all the right stuff, the game got away from Wilson quickly with his inability to stay in the strike zone. He was charged with six runs, four earned, before he could get a third out.
The Halos need a confident Wilson as their No. 2 guy behind Weaver. They are not sure what they can get from Shoemaker, who saved their season, in the view of manager Mike Scioscia, in the absence of Garrett Richards and is trying to work through the pain to leave a postseason imprint.
An unsteady rotation puts considerable pressure on the offense to crank it up. These Angels are capable of outscoring teams the way they did in 2002 when they took it the distance. But it is not the kind of thing you want to count on, if you can help it.
Runs tend to become scarce in October as the pitching gets more precise. The offense has to do something. The A's found that out last season when the Tigers seized a gripping AL Division Series behind Verlander's dominance.
"Any time they want to go out and give me eight runs, I'll accept it," Samardzija said, grinning. "It's good to see everyone coming together."
While Wilson's generosity was certainly nice, the A's can't expect four walks in a span of five hitters and eight runs with seven hits on a regular basis.
The Angels, lacking the emotional investment of the A's in their Wild Card pursuit, lined up three lefties for this series. Wade LeBlanc and Santiago follow Wilson.
What this does is remove from Oakland's starting lineup some of its best weapons. Left-handed hitters Dunn, Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Stephen Vogt and Eric Sogard take seats.
With Wilson's early departure signaling the arrival of a succession of right-handed relievers, A's manager Bob Melvin started bringing his bats off the bench as early as the third inning when Vogt pinch-hit for Nate Freiman. In the fourth, Moss and Dunn batted for Jonny Gomes and Derek Norris.
Everybody gets to hit in Oakland, the hope being someone might set off some sparks and get this attack rolling again.
"Right now, it's all hands on deck," Melvin said.
For starters, certainly, the A's are in good hands.