When Garrett Richards, the best pitcher on the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and one of the best pitchers in the league, went down with a knee injury on Aug. 20, the consensus seemed to be: The AL West race is over; the Angels didn't have the rotation depth to survive his loss, especially with veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson not what they once were.
The West is over. Except it's the Angels, who finished off a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics with an 8-1 win on Sunday, and not the A's, who are going to win the division. The sweep pushed the Angels' lead over the A's to five games, had winning pitcher Matt Shoemaker calling it a "huge series for us in regards to the playoffs," saw Angels fans chanting "Sweep! Sweep!" late in the game and caused normally placid Oakland manager Bob Melvin to call out his team: "They should be embarrassed."
It was an energizing four days for the Angels -- they shut out the A's for 29 consecutive innings at one point -- and a demoralizing series for the A's, who finished August with a 12-17 record, their first losing month since May of 2012.
"We don't play like that," a glum Melvin said after the game. "The last three games here were the worst I've seen this team play in I can't remember how long. I feel bad for our fans to have to watch that."
What has gone right with the Angels? What has gone wrong with the A's?
For the Angels, let's start not with likely AL MVP Mike Trout -- who did homer on Sunday -- but the rookie Shoemaker, who continues to excel. Before the season, Baseball America didn't even rate the 27-year-old right-hander as one of the Angels' top 30 prospects. Perhaps understandable given his age, undrafted status coming out of Eastern Michigan and his pedestrian numbers the past two seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake, but the Angels were also rated to have the worst farm system in the majors -- for the second year in a row. How could this guy not be one of their 30 best minor leaguers? Put it this way: Shoemaker wasn't on anybody's radar as a potential key contributor.
But here he is: 14-4, with a 3.14 ERA and 115 strikeouts and 21 walks in 117.2 innings. There's nothing in those numbers that screams fluke: The strikeout rate is very good, the control is excellent, the BABIP isn't abnormal. Does he have an overpowering fastball? No, it averages just 90.6 mph, but he does have an effective splitter that has become a wipeout pitch. That pitch has accounted for 68 of his 115 K's and batters are hitting just .148 against it with one home run.
It's a pitch he initially learned to throw as a 14-year-old. "It just continues to get better," he said after beating the A's with seven scoreless innings. He threw it 30 percent of the time on Sunday, but considering he also mixes in a two-seam sinker, a slider and curveball, he's a five-pitch pitcher with a repertoire that resembles Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, and that has made him tough even without the blazing heater.
Or maybe it's the beard. He has grown a Brian Wilson-esque patch of fur on his chin. Hey, considering he's 7-2 with a 1.67 ERA since the All-Star break, I wouldn't shave either.
Another secret weapon for the Angels is catcher Chris Iannetta, who only has an on-base percentage better than Trout. Or right fielder Kole Calhoun, hitting .299/.346/.476 since June 6 and doing an excellent job setting the table for Trout. Or the bullpen. On Saturday, manager Mike Scioscia started reliever Cory Rasmus, who pitched three innings, and then used seven other relievers. The eight pitchers combined for a 2-0 shutout. It was an effective strategy as the Angels continue to scuffle for a fifth starter, one made possible by Scioscia's confidence in Shoemaker going deep into the game on Sunday.
As for the A's, the cop-out excuse is to say they miss Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe he did help provide a certain swagger, but that's not the reason they've struggled in August. Plus, have you eve know an A's team to lack swagger? Look at how their All-Stars have fared before the break and after:
Josh Donaldson: .238/.317/.449 to .314/.427/.529
Brandon Moss: .268/.349/.530 to .183/.318/.254
Derek Norris: .294/.402/.477 to .235/.300/.336
Scott Kazmir: 11-3, 2.38 ERA to 3-4, 6.21 ERA
Sean Doolittle: 2.89 43 IP to 11.2 IP (injured)
Only Donaldson, who has actually played better, has kept up his pace. Moss' struggles have created a power hole in the middle of the lineup, especially when combined with Cespedes' departure. The declines of Norris and Kazmir were predictable to some extent, two guys playing above their heads in the first half. Further, Sonny Gray had a 2.79 ERA before the break and 3.61 after; Jason Hammel has a 6.09 ERA since the break; Coco Crisp is hitting .172/.252/.284. Don't blame this slide on the Cespedes trade (and Jon Lester has been terrific).
Can the A's turn it around and catch the Angels? I don't see it. Yes, we've had teams blow five-game leads in September in recent years -- see the 2011 Red Sox in the wild-card race; the 2007 Mets had a seven-game lead on Sept. 12; and the A's certainly remember the 2012 Rangers -- Texas had a five-game lead over Oakland as late as Sept. 24 but the A's still won the division.
So never say never. But the Angels have the lineup depth with a superstar leading the way (they haven't even needed big seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton); the bullpen is on a roll and deep enough that Scioscia doesn't need his starters to go deep into the game; 12 of the Angels' next 13 games are against the Astros, Twins and Rangers while the A's will have two series against the Mariners. On paper, it's going to difficult for Oakland to make up much ground the next two weeks.
Yes, the Angels' rotation is now depending on a 27-year rookie -- 28 later this month -- leading the way while the A's counter with a deep arsenal of starters.
But that's baseball, the most unpredictable of sports. We thought the A's getting Jeff Samardzija and Lester would be the big story in the AL West. Instead, it's Matt Shoemaker. Gotta love it.