It took the Angels more than three years to climb alone to the top of the American League West, a summit they had last reached in May 2011. But they needed only six days to lose their footing and slip back into a first-place tie with the Oakland Athletics.
Reliever Joe Smith's wild pitch with two out in the eighth inning allowed Coco Crisp to score from third base with the winning run, giving the A's a 2-1 victory over the Angels on Saturday and forcing the teams to again share the lead in the majors' tightest division race.
“It's going to be that way the rest of the year,” Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. “You're facing a tough ballclub every night. And we have to play well and play to a certain level if we're going to get through it. We just didn't get a couple of things done.”
Which is the way the Angels' season has gone in Oakland, where they have yet to win in five tries.
“It's two really good teams,” Angels starter C.J. Wilson said of the Angels and A's, who meet eight more times over the next five weeks. “When you have that many games against a competitive team, it obviously goes right down to the end. They're not going to roll over.”
In addition to the pennant-race implications, Saturday's game was also important because of the pitching matchup between Wilson and Jon Lester. Each will have a lot to say about where their teams finish the season.
Lester was acquired from Boston at the trade deadline to give Oakland the kind of top-of-the-rotation arm the A's lacked. And he pitched like an ace for six innings Saturday, striking out seven, including Mike Trout three times, dropping Trout's average to .194 (seven for 36) on the trip.
Wilson, a two-time All-Star, is being counted on to take some of the sting out of the loss of 13-game winner Garrett Richards, who is out for the season after knee surgery Friday.
Wilson, too, gave his team a lift, pitching into the seventh inning and giving up only one run for the first time since mid-June.
“We need what we saw tonight,” Scioscia said. “That's a terrific start for C.J. Hopefully, he's going to continue do to that, giving us well-pitched starts and opportunities to win games.”
The Angels didn't get the ball out of the infield against Lester until the fourth inning, when he was working on a streak in which he retired 10 Angels in order.
David Freese ended that streak when he led off the seventh with a line drive off the left-field wall. But he was retired, too, when he was thrown out at second base.
Howie Kendrick followed with a liner over right fielder Sam Fuld's head and he did make it safely to second, though he didn't stay there long, scoring on an Erick Aybar single.
Wilson, on the other hand, got stronger as the game wore on. He gave up one run, four hits and hit a batter his first time through the batting order, with three of the hits coming in the second inning when the A's took a 1-0 lead on a run-scoring single by Fuld, the No. 8 hitter in the lineup.
In the sixth inning, Josh Donaldson drew a leadoff walk and Derek Norris hit a double into the left-field corner. But Donaldson missed the plate on his slide and was tagged out, a ruling confirmed by a 3-minute, 40-second umpire review.
Neither starter was around for the finish after turning things over to strong bullpens. Oakland relievers began the game ranked second in the league with a 2.81 earned-run average and Angels relievers were second in the AL in victories with 24.
But the Angels bullpen also has 18 losses and Smith was tagged with this one after giving up a leadoff single to Crisp. Two groundouts moved Crisp to third base, Smith (5-2) hit Norris with a pitch and his 1-and-1 offering to Brandon Moss miss everything but the backstop.
“Joe's been one of the mainstays down there and one of the biggest reasons why we've been able to pick up ground and get to the top of our standings,” Scioscia said.