The Angels and Oakland Athletics bade farewell to each other Thursday, at least for now.
The A’s won big, despite the modest 5-3 score, as Terrence Long snapped a 3-3 tie by hitting the game-winning home run in the sixth inning. The A’s thus hopped one game ahead of the Angels in the American League West. They also won the season series, 11-9, thus winning the tiebreaker should the teams tie for the division title.
Effectively, then, the A’s lead the Angels by two games with nine to play. The division champion earns home-field advantage in the playoffs, whereas the AL West runner-up almost certainly will be the wild-card entry, which will open the playoffs amid the ghosts in Yankee Stadium.
Predictably, the A’s were thrilled, while the Angels downplayed the importance of the game.
“This was a playoff game,” Oakland Manager Art Howe said.
“Every game is a big game at this point,” the Angels’ Scott Spiezio said. “Yeah, this was a big game. So is tomorrow’s. There are still plenty of games left.”
The Angels need not be depressed. They had not lost consecutive games since Aug. 22-23. Still, with two victories in Seattle this weekend, they will clinch their first postseason berth in 16 years.
The Angels insist their eyes remain on the division title. If they keep winning games, they say, they’ll be fine.
“We’re not going to be scoreboard watching,” Manager Mike Scioscia said. “It’s not going to do us any good to worry about what the A’s are doing. We haven’t done that all year, and we’re not going to start doing it now.”
Both sides played with an urgency that reflected the importance of the game. Oakland’s Ray Durham startled Angel right fielder Tim Salmon by tagging from first base on a fly ball. In the second inning of a 1-0 game, with a runner at third base and one out, the A’s played their infielders in. The Angels batted for catcher Bengie Molina in the sixth inning.
And Howe used closer Billy Koch for the fifth consecutive day, a workload almost unheard of in the modern era. Koch, who set an Oakland record by working in his 79th game of the season, pitched in each of the four games of the series. He got the victory Monday, the loss Tuesday and saves Wednesday and Thursday.
“I think he sold his soul to the devil to be able to come back and pitch every day like he does,” Oakland starter Tim Hudson said.
Hudson (15-9) held the Angels to six hits over 7 1/3 innings. He has not lost since the Angels tagged him with consecutive defeats in July.
Angel starter Kevin Appier, with his delivery a bit out of whack and with a breaking ball he said “wasn’t being cooperative,” needed 23 pitches to escape the first inning and 43 to escape the first two. But, with two double plays from his defense and two sacrifice flies from his offense, he endured into the sixth inning and departed with the score tied, 3-3.
With one on and one out in the sixth, Brendan Donnelly relieved Appier. Donnelly got the second out of the inning, then Long hit the game-winning homer, very long indeed. Donnelly, who had not given up a home run in his first 36 appearances, has given up two to the A’s in the last week.
The Angels and A’s concluded their season series with nine one-run games, seven in the final 11, leaving both sides anticipating a possible rematch in the AL championship series.
“That’s a double-edged sword,” Salmon said. “I’m almost tired of playing them. Every game is tense and nerve-racking. But, if it came down to that, it would be great.”
Said Oakland’s Eric Chavez, “We’ve kind of set the standard already. I don’t think anybody would expect anything less. It would be fun. It would be a great series.”