It’s far too early to concede the American League West to the Oakland Athletics, but the early returns don’t look too promising for the Angels.
Yoenis Cespedes had the game of his life Saturday night, gunning down two runners at the plate in the second inning, hitting a tie-breaking two-run triple in the seventh and a three-run homer in the eighth to lead the A’s to an 11-3 win over the Angels in the Oakland Coliseum.
The Angels took a 3-1 lead into the seventh, but Tyler Skaggs gave up a homer and two singles, and setup man Joe Smith yielded the triple to Cespedes, as well as a two-run double to Alberto Callaspo, which capped a six-run rally.
The two-time defending champion and first-place A’s have won four of the first five games between the teams, coming from behind against the Angels’ top relievers in the late innings to win three times and knocking out Garrett Richards in the first inning of Friday night’s 9-5 win.
They have opened a 3 1/2-game lead over the Angels, which is hardly insurmountable. But more important, they’ve gained the upper hand on L.A., and they appear to have the kind of confidence and swagger the Angels had against their division rivals while winning three straight AL West titles from 2007 through 2009.
“It’s a really long season, and obviously, we want to play better and beat these guys, but we want to beat everybody,” right fielder Kole Calhoun said. “We have to stay together as a team. These two games are big, it’s a big series, but we have to come back Sunday and try to win.
“It’s something you can’t dwell on. There’s still a lot of baseball left, and we still control everything we want to control. It’s not that we have to play better against these guys, we have to play well as a team.”
The Angels loaded the bases with no outs in the first inning Saturday night, but David Freese struck out, Howie Kendrick popped out to second, and C.J. Cron grounded out. They bunched four singles in the second but failed to score, as Cespedes threw out two runners at the plate.
“We have to capitalize on those situations,” Calhoun said. “If you can get up on them early and score often, you’ll put yourself in good position to win. We had the opportunities, we could have added on.”
Collin Cowgill hit a three-run homer in the fourth, the A’s scored once in the fourth, and when Skaggs got in trouble in the seventh, giving up a homer to Kyle Blanks and singles to Coco Crisp and Nick Punto, Manager Mike Scioscia turned to Smith, the sidearm-throwing right-hander with the nasty sinking fastball.
Craig Gentry bunted the runners up, and Scoscia ordered an intentional walk to Jed Lowrie to set up a double play for Josh Donaldson, Oakland’s best hitter and a most valuable player candidate.
Smith got the ground ball, but not the one he wanted. It was chopped slowly to second, too soft for the Angels to turn a double play. A run scored to make it 3-3, and with first base open again, Scioscia had Smith pitch to Cespedes.
Smith got ahead of Cespedes with a 1-and-2 count, Cespedes fouling off three tough inside fastballs before crushing a fastball that was up and over the middle for a two-run triple that nicked off the glove of the diving Calhoun on the warning track.
“I got the ground ball, and then I got away from my strengths against Cespedes,” Smith said. “I tried to throw an outside fastball to a right-handed hitter, and that’s not my best pitch.
“Chris [Iannetta, Angels catcher] called an inside heater, and I shook it off. He called a slider, which is my next-best pitch, and I shook it off. Then he called fastball away, which is what I was thinking. I missed up, and he hit it to the warning track for a triple. The inning went downhill from there.”
The game got out of hand, Oakland scoring four more runs off relievers Michael Kohn and Jarrett Grube in the eighth, but going into the seventh, “We had that game set up the way we needed it,” Scioscia said.
Is Scioscia beginning to think the Angels have to play a perfect game to beat the A’s?
“No, we have to play our game,” Scioscia said. “They’ve played us tough, as has Seattle, but the bottom line is we’re still evolving as a team. We have to play at a high level to beat the A’s, but we’re going to have a chance to match up with them.”
Skaggs, who allowed four runs and five hits in six innings to take the loss, is impressed by the way the A’s “grind with runners on base” and “put the ball in play with runners in scoring position,” but he doesn’t think the Angels are intimidated by the A’s.
“We should have won the game today, but we’re not going to hang our heads in here,” he said. “There’s a lot more baseball to be played, and we’ll be coming after them.”