The Angels and the American League West-leading Oakland Athletics opened a three-game series in the Oakland Coliseum on Friday night with 1 1/2 games separating the clubs.
A big series? Perhaps. The A's are the two-time defending division champions, a balanced and battle-tested team the Angels must overcome to claim their first AL West title since 2009.
A huge series? Angels catcher Hank Conger and right fielder Kole Calhoun both used that word in interviews Thursday, so it is to some. But a "crucial AL West showdown," as one website headline blared Friday? That might be a reach.
"It's May, man," said Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, a nine-year veteran who has the perspective of having played in some crucial AL West showdowns from 2007 to 2009, when the Angels won three straight division titles.
"Every game is important. They're playing well, we're playing well, but at the end of the day, it comes down to winning games, whether it's the A's, Seattle, Houston, anybody. We've got to win games."
The Angels did not win a game Friday night. They didn't really come close. Garrett Richards, the flame-throwing right-hander touted as one of baseball's best young pitchers, didn't make it out of the first inning, giving up five runs, five hits and walking three in an eventual 9-5 loss.
First-inning singles by Coco Crisp and John Jaso and Josh Donaldson's walk loaded the bases for Brandon Moss, who lined a 2-and-0 pitch over the right-field wall for his first career grand slam.
Richards, who allowed one homer in 66 innings of his first 10 starts, gave up singles to Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick and walked Derek Norris. Crisp's two-out walk forced in another run, and Richards was replaced by Wade LeBlanc.
"It's embarrassing—I didn't show up for us tonight," Richards said. "I didn't give us a chance to win. I put us in a hole early."
The A's and Angels played three one-run games in Anaheim in April, but Oakland seemed to assert itself as the alpha team Friday, using its typically solid pitching and contributions throughout the lineup to push their division lead to 21/2 games over the Angels.
"They have a lot of guys who get on base, a lot of guys who come up with big hits, and if one guy doesn't get it done, the next guy comes up and thinks he's going to get it done," Kendrick said. "Not everybody can do it all the time. That's why you have nine guys in the lineup and guys on the bench who can step up and do different things."
What the A's do better than most is pitch. They entered Friday leading the major leagues in earned-run average (2.89) and opponents batting average (.221), on-base percentage (.284), slugging percentage (.333) and average with runners in scoring position (.187).
And that's without two of their top starters, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, who are out for the season.
"They've always been able to acquire and develop good pitching," Kendrick said, "whether they're winning or not."
Despite Friday's loss, the Angels could pose the greatest threat to the A's, their deeper rotation, bullpen and lineup leading to a five-game improvement from their 25-29 record through 54 games last season.
"They have a good team," Oakland Manager Bob Melvin said. "They made good acquisitions in the off-season. Pitching-wise, they're completely different from last year. They're stronger in the back of the bullpen. They're stronger in the rotation.
"And they're not relying on one or two guys offensively to carry the load. You look at C.J. Cron and Grant Green. They're swinging the bat really well. So is Kendrick. It's not just [Mike] Trout and [Albert] Pujols. They have one-through-nine guys they can rely on."