OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- As far as Jay Payton knows, life with the Oakland Athletics is one long dreamscape of unhittable pitching, landmark homers and convincing wins for one of the most dynamic teams in baseball.
Barry Zito and the rest of the A's are hoping to keep this fantasy going for as long as possible.Zito took a no-hitter into the eighth inning and Payton hit a two-run homer on his first swing for the surging A's in their fifth straight victory, 7-2 over the Texas Rangers on Friday night.After Rich Harden took a perfect game into the eighth inning of an 81-pitch two-hitter Thursday, Zito (7-8) was nearly flawless until Kevin Mench homered with one out in the eighth -- the same spot where Harden's perfection ended.But after Zito finished up eight innings of two-hit ball, Payton had an incredible memory of his two days with the A's."I'm [thinking], if they do this every night, we're going to be in pretty good shape the rest of the way," said Payton, who made his first start after arriving in a trade with Boston on Wednesday. "It's pretty amazing."The two games since the All-Star break have been practically perfect for the A's, who have won 15 of 18 to move a season-high three games over .500 -- and just a half-game behind the Rangers for second place in the AL West standings.Eric Chavez hit a three-run homer and Nick Swisher also connected as the A's kept charging back into the playoff race -- but the night was dominated by Zito, whose resurgence reached its highest point yet.Zito, who struggled with hard-luck losses early in his first season as Oakland's ace following the departures of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, struck out five while winning his fourth straight start. Since making a few mechanical adjustments eight weeks ago, he believes he's pitching even better than in 2002, when he won the AL Cy Young Award.Zito walked leadoff hitter Gary Matthews Jr., but he was erased on Michael Young's double-play grounder. With all his pitches working splendidly, including his famously nasty curveball, Zito faced the minimum 17 batters until Mark DeRosa's two-out walk in the sixth."You always know how many hits you give up," Zito said. "You know whether guys are on base or not. ... [A no-hitter] is up there with all the things every pitcher wants to achieve. You've got to expect one every time. If you don't shoot for the moon, you're
never going to get there. That's what my dad always says."Zito didn't even have a real scare in the first six innings, retiring the Rangers on a series of grounders and pop-ups without a single fly to the outfield. Dan Johnson and Mark Kotsay made exceptional catches in the seventh inning to keep the no-hitter alive.Harden and Zito were the first two pitchers in the majors to open a game with seven no-hit innings this season. But Mench's fly to left barely cleared the line above the scoreboard, and the crowd rose for an ovation before the Texas slugger crossed the plate.Rod Barajas doubled moments later, but Zito escaped the jam, earning another standing ovation."It was vintage Barry," Young said. "He was cutting his fastball in and out, and he has that great curve and great changeup. He's one of those guys that will always keep improving out there."Zito was five outs away from the 11th no-hitter in the franchise history of the Athletics, who had five in Philadelphia and five more in Oakland, including Catfish Hunter's perfect game in 1968. Dave Stewart threw the A's last no-hitter, blanking Toronto 5-0 on June 29, 1990.After 108 pitches by Zito, new A's reliever Jay Witasick
couldn't get an out in the ninth. He allowed Young's RBI double, but Kiko Calero struck out Alfonso Soriano and Mench to end it.Payton put John Wasdin's 0-1 curve over the tall fence in left-center in the second inning, immediately endearing himself to fans who miss traded outfielder Eric Byrnes. Payton, who seethed as a backup in Boston, was playing for the first time since July 1.Wasdin (0-1) couldn't get an out in the third inning, finishing with six hits and seven runs allowed. It was the second straight awful spot start for the right-hander, who has otherwise been a solid reliever since the Rangers recalled him in early June.Joaquin Benoit relieved Wasdin and struck out the first four batters he faced on the way to 4 1/3 scoreless innings, but Texas' hitters couldn't touch Zito. The Rangers also struggled in the field, making three errors -- two on fairly easy foul popups."We got smothered by two of the better pitchers in the game," Young said. "I'd be concerned if it was anyone else."
The Rangers led the majors with 147 homers entering the All-Star break. Mench's homer was his 17th of the season. ... Rangers outfielder Laynce Nix, who injured his arm making a diving catch Thursday night, was held out of the lineup as a precaution.