Knowing the Oakland A's were down big to the Texas Rangers (and would eventually lose), all the Los Angeles Angels had to do was beat the last-place Seattle Mariners, a team they had defeated 10 times in 15 games this season.
This is why only crazy people bet on baseball. The night before, the Angels had defeated the Mariners for the fourth time in a game started by Felix Hernandez (although the win came in the ninth against the Seattle bullpen, with help from catcher Miguel Olivo's inability to block a pitch in the dirt). On this day, Mariners bats erupted for a 9-4 victory, although most of those runs came late against the Angels bullpen.
Seattle led 3-2 in the seventh behind another solid performance from the underrated Hisashi Iwakuma, who ranks fourth in the American League in ERA since the All-Star break at 2.67. Franklin Gutierrez had crashed into the wall making a fantastic catch of Mike Trout's long drive with a runner on, a key play to help keep the lead. Mike Scioscia pulled starter Dan Haren in the sixth after just 80 pitches. Haren has actually fared better of late, with a 2.45 ERA over his past six starts entering the game, but whether because of Haren's balky back or other issues, Scioscia doesn't trust him to go deep into the game. He's pitched into the seventh inning just twice in his past 14 starts.
Anyway, the game's key decision came when the Mariners had runners at second and third with one out and Garrett Richards pitching. Scioscia elected to intentionally walk Dustin Ackley to face Trayvon Robinson. I hate this move, hate it, especially with a guy like Richards, who isn't exactly Greg Maddux when it comes to his ability to throw strikes. Look, Robinson stinks and strikes out a ton, but Ackley isn't exactly Edgar Martinez. The problem with the move is it makes Robinson a better hitter, forces Richards to throw strikes, and increases the likelihood of a big inning.
Sure enough, Robinson walked to force in a run, Kyle Seager singled in two runs and Jesus Montero hit a sacrifice fly. Maybe the big inning still happens if you pitch to Ackley, but Scioscia's move made it more likely.
So the Angels remain two games behind the A's. The Angels have never missed the playoffs three consecutive years under Scioscia, but it might happen, despite all the money spent in the offseason to sign Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, plus the in-season acquisition of Zack Greinke and the emergence of Trout.
"The momentum is crazy this time of year," Scioscia said. "We need to get right back on the horse tomorrow. These guys have played well, especially in the last month. They know what's going on. They know the fine line we have to walk."
Many have pointed to the Angels' middle relief as a key problem. While the bullpen didn't pick up the loss on Thursday (Haren left trailing 3-2), it certainly helped wrecked the chances of a comeback. One way to look at middle is to compare the Angels' record in the middle innings to the top American League teams.
Leading after five innings
Rangers 74-6, .925 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 65-9, .878 (12-13 when tied)
Athletics 6-10, .859 (18-6 when tied)
Yankees 66-11, .857 (9-5 when tied)
Orioles 57-10, .851 (16-8 when tied)
Angels 67-14, .827 (10-9 when tied)
Leading after six innings
Rangers 75-4, .949 (9-9 when tied)
Orioles 62-4, .939 (11-7 when tied)
Yankees 70-8, .897 (9-5 when tied)
Rays 69-8, .896 (7-8 when tied)
Athletics 66-8, .892 (12-6 when tied)
Angels 70-12, .854 (10-6 when tied)
Leading after seven innings
Orioles 70-0, 1.000 (10-5 when tied)
Rangers 77-1, .987 (9-10 when tied)
Rays 71-3, .959 (6-8 when tied)
Yankees 75-5, .938 (6-4 when tied)
Athletics 68-6, .919 (13-7 when tied)
Angels 70-8, .897 (12-6 when tied)
So, yes, middle has been a major issue, even though Angels relievers have thrown the second-fewest innings in the AL (only the Yankees have thrown fewer). It's funny how you spend hundreds of millions on the big names and it's the guys making $600,000 who can decide your fate.
Just another reason we love this game.