Mike Scioscia was fully aware of both the calendar and the consequences Friday when his Angels opened a three-game series against the Oakland Athletics.
The lead in the American League West was hanging in the balance with five weeks left in the season. Yet he urged the team to play the games as if they were meaningless March exhibitions just the same.
"We need to approach this just like you do any spring training game," he said. "Go out there and just play baseball. I think that's when we're at our best."
They weren't at their best Friday, though, with the A's twice rallying from one-run deficits for a 5-3 win that narrowed the gap between the first-place Angels and second-place A's to just a game.
The loss also snapped a four-game winning streak for the Angels, who had won eight of their last nine, while for the A's the victory was their second in 11 days.
However the Angels, who haven't won in Oakland this season, didn't go quietly. For the first 82/3 innings their only offense came from solo homers by Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton, but they scored once in the ninth and loaded the bases against Oakland reliever Sean Doolittle before pinch-hitter Chris Iannetta struck out swinging to end the game.
"I think there were a lot of good things on the field. And some things we didn't quite get done," Scioscia said. "We kept battling. Just couldn't get that last hit at the end."
Oakland erased its last deficit in the fifth inning when shortstop Erick Aybar, trying for an inning-ending double play, bounced his throw, allowing Coco Crisp to score from second.
That play may ultimately prove even more costly, though, because it started with pitcher Hector Santiago sticking his left hand in front of Josh Donaldson's line drive. The ball caromed to second baseman Howie Kendrick, who tossed to Aybar at second. But with Craig Gentry sliding hard into second, Aybar's relay to first skipped past Albert Pujols, allowing Crisp to race home from second with the tying run.
For the Angels, already smarting from the loss of ace Garrett Richards to knee surgery Friday, having to go without Santiago could be disastrous. The left-hander was examined by the Angels trainers and allowed to stay in the game, but he faced just two more batters before leaving after five innings and 98 pitches.
Afterward Santiago said the hand was still swollen and bruised, making it hard to hold a baseball.
"My breaking ball, I couldn't get a nice grip on it," he said. "Instead of going there and becoming a one-pitch guy.… I didn't want to do that. It's just a little bit of a bruise right now. Right now just ice and rest and it should be good to go."
After Santiago left, reliever Jason Grilli gave up two more runs on a walk, an infield single, Sam Fuld's triple and a sacrifice fly. That proved enough to make a winner of Sonny Gray (13-7), who was brilliant, pitching into the ninth inning before waiting out Doolittle's shaky effort to win for the first time this month.
The Angels, meanwhile, are left to ponder how they can shore up their ailing rotation.
"There's not an open-all-night, 24-hour super store that provides starting pitchers on the drop of a dime," General Manager Jerry Dipoto said. "It's a hard time to acquire pitchers."
Especially now that players must pass through waivers before they can be traded. One attractive option who reportedly has already cleared waivers is left-hander Jon Niese of the Mets. But New York, knowing of the Angels' plight, is sure to ask for an inflated package of prospects in return.
"We'll do the best we can," Dipoto said. "And if there's a way on the market to come up with an upgrade we will."
If not, Dipoto said the Angels "will spread out our total staff to support with depth" what they're lacking without Richards.