The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics are like a pair of cyclists who have broken away from the peloton, the A's holding the top spot in the American League West and the Angels in prime drafting position, 11/2 games back.
The Angels, who at 57-37 have the second-best record in baseball, won 19 of 23 games leading into the All-Star break, a sprint that would have tracked down most division leaders but not the A's, who have won 17 of 25.
If this seems familiar, it's because the A's and Angels did a similar tango in 2002, when Oakland won 20 straight from Aug. 13 to Sept. 4 but couldn't shake the Angels, who won 21 of 27 from Aug. 10 to Sept. 8 and caught the A's on Sept. 12.
The A's won the division with a 103-59 record, but that season turned out OK for the 99-win Angels, who won the World Series.
"There's no point of being in first place in July," said Angels catcher Chris Iannetta. "You just want to keep pace and see who wins the division, who wins the wild card.
"One of us could take off and leave everyone else behind, or we could hang tight until the end. Who knows? Maybe we'll have a one-game playoff. It could be fun."
Then again, maybe not. If the Angels and A's meet for a one-game playoff to determine the division champion, the loser of that game would have to win a one-game wild-card playoff just to advance to the division series.
That could be against another AL West team, Seattle, which is eight games behind Oakland but currently holds the second wild-card spot. And the Mariners, who open a three-game series in Anaheim on Friday night, have two pitchers, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who have been tough on the Angels.
"There's more of a premium on winning the division because you have to get by that one-game playoff," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, a strong proponent of the new playoff format. "Winning a division is carrying the weight that it should."
The Angels, on pace to win 98 games, could finish with baseball's second-best record and still be relegated to a one-and-done wild-card game.
"That's something you can't think about right now," Iannetta said. "The task at hand is to win today. If we take care of what we can every day, the standings will take care of itself."
KEYS TO THE SECOND HALF
A rotation that has combined to go 41-27 with a 3.81 earned-run average and averaged just over six innings a start must continue to pitch effectively and deep into games, a task that grew a little more challenging when left-hander C.J. Wilson went on the disabled list because of a sprained right ankle July 10.
Then again, Wilson, who will be out for two to four weeks, had a 10.26 ERA with eight walks in 16 2/3 innings of his last four starts, so maybe the Angels will be better off with Hector Santiago in the rotation for now.
A revamped and improved bullpen must pitch more as it did in the last 26 games, when relievers combined for a 2.68 ERA, .203 opponents average and converted 10 of 12 save opportunities, than the first 66 games, when it had a 4.36 ERA, .243 opponents average and blew 10 of 26 save opportunities.
MOVES TO MAKE
Sidearm-throwing Joe Smith has been lights out since replacing the traded Ernesto Frieri as closer, converting all 10 of his save opportunities and not giving up a hit in his last 10 innings. Setup man Kevin Jepsen has given up one earned run in 24 2/3 innings in his last 17 games, lowering his ERA to 2.08.
But that won't preclude the Angels from pursuing a closer such as San Diego's Huston Street, Miami's Steve Cishek or Boston's Koji Uehara if he becomes available; or a setup man such as the Padres' Joaquin Benoit.
"I still believe it's important to deepen that pool of guys that is going to hold leads," Scioscia said. "Whether that comes in the form of a closer who moves Joe to a different part of the game or a setup guy who would keep Joe in that ninth-inning bubble remains to be seen."
The starting pitching holds up, the Angels add an impact arm to the bullpen, and a Mike Trout-led offense that leads the major leagues with 478 runs, an on-base percentage of .334 and 29 comeback wins -- and hit .371 (69 for 186) with runners in scoring position over the last 20 games -- continues to pound away.
The Angels incur another injury in the rotation, forcing them to dip into an extremely thin minor league system for a starter or scramble for one in a trade, and the bullpen reverts to its inconsistent ways of April and May, forcing the offense to outslug the pitching deficiencies.
The schedule stiffens after the break, with 17 of 20 games against Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit and the Los Angeles Dodgers, teams that are a combined 42 games over .500. But barring a complete collapse, the Angels should end their four-year playoff drought, a huge step for a team that underachieved in 2012 and 2013.
The offense is prolific and deep enough to absorb an injury or two. If the pitching remains strong, there is no reason the Angels can't overtake the A's and win their first division title since 2009.
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