OAKLAND, Calif. -- You would think a franchise-record 59 wins at the All-Star break would buy a club more breathing room than the 11/2-game edge the Oakland A's have as second-half play resumes Friday.
Welcome to the American League West, home of the winningest team in the major leagues in the A's, and the second-best team in the Angels. Also, third-place Seattle seems to be the equal of any of the other dozen teams unmentioned.
A's general manager Billy Beane wasn't kidding when he said it would be presumptuous to consider Oakland's Fourth of July trade for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel a deal designed to make the A's a better team in October. Beane was looking down the muzzle of an Angels' team that had won 19 of 23 games heading into the All-Star break.
What would be presumptuous now would be to think the A's and Angels will stand pat in the two weeks leading to the July 31 trade deadline. If Anaheim is going to catch Oakland, it will need another starting pitcher with C.J. Wilson (ankle) on the disabled list and not having won since June 24.
The Angels already have dumped closer Ernesto Frieri in favor of Jason Grilli, and they have been linked to both Jonathan Papelbon and Huston Street as they look to shore up their bullpen.
During their hot streak the Angels pitchers have a 3.63 ERA. The A's played 22 times over the same stretch starting June 20, and while they were not as dominant, they still went 14-8 and did it with a pitching staff that had a 3.31 ERA over that stretch.
What will the A's do to counter-punch any moves the Angels might make?
They are looking for an upgrade at second base. Eric Sogard's defense hasn't been enough to counterbalance an offensive dropoff, and Alberto Callaspo's offense, while better, comes with a defensive cost. Callaspo also is on the disabled list. Nick Punto is the third man at second, and he will get more time in the next two weeks.
The A's have been taking long looks at Jason Kipnis (Cleveland) and Ben Zobrist (Toronto), two second baseman who are available, scouts say. It's not clear that the Phillies will trade Chase Utley, or how steep the price will be if they do, but Oakland would have to be interested.
The A's had a much more difficult road in getting to 59 wins than the Angels did in getting to 57, which is an inside-out way of saying Oakland has an easier schedule the rest of the way.
In the next two weeks, for example, Oakland has three games against a contender, the Baltimore Orioles, then nine against the bottom of the AL West, Houston (40-56) and Texas (38-57). In the same span the Angels play three against Seattle, and six against the Orioles (52-42) and four against the Tigers (53-38), both first-place teams.
"For the most part, these guys don't look too far past who we'll be playing today," manager Bob Melvin said. "The one thing that everybody has noticed is that the schedule gets better for us as far as the travel goes. We've had a lot of tough trips, the three-city trips, and we've gotten those out of the way. Hopefully that's a benefit for us."
In making those three-city trips, the A's played most of the prime contenders on their docket. So Oakland is now sitting with what on paper is the softest schedule of any contender in either league: 67 games, 38 against sub-.500 teams and 29 against teams with winning records. Of those games against sub-.500 teams, 28 are against teams that are eight games or more under .500 at the break.
"Right now, we're where we expected ourselves to be," All-Star closer Sean Doolittle said. "We respect the job we still have to do. Are we the team to beat? We don't look at it like that. We believe in playing day-to-day. We know (the Angels) are coming hard. We just have to keep playing our game."
The A's have been passed by the Angels as the top-scoring team in baseball, Oakland trailing 478-466.At the same time, the A's pitchers have allowed 68 fewer runs than the Angels. Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez all rank in the top 12 in AL ERA, but the workload has been heavy, so even with the additions of Samardzija and Hammel, the A's will have Triple-A starters Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz on speed dial.
"We have to feel pretty good about where we're at," All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson said. "But there is a whole lot of work to do. I don't think you've necessarily seen our best baseball yet. This is a good group. Guys will step up."
The A's could use the energy boost a healthy Josh Reddick (right knee) and Coco Crisp (neck) would give them in right and center, respectively. Both might be ready by Friday.
To start the second half, however, it's just about continuing to do what they've been doing.
"Our division is good," Melvin said. "Seattle is good. Anaheim has been unbelievable recently. So we just simplify. We just play."€(c)
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