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Banged-up Athletics struggling as race for AL West supremacy tightens

The A's failed to complete their sweep of the Angels on Sunday and reclaim sole possession of first place in the AL West. Can they stay healthy enough to compete? Photo:

The A's failed to complete their sweep of the Angels on Sunday and reclaim sole possession of first place in the AL West. Can they stay healthy enough to compete?

So much for that sweep. On Sunday night, the A's had a chance to reclaim sole possession of first place in the AL West with one more win over the Angels, from whom they'd taken the first two games of their weekend series in Oakland. The game didn't go well, and what's more, the team was left to lick its wounds regarding injuries to a few key players. 

While starter Scott Kazmir needed just six pitches to retire Kole Calhoun, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the first inning, the 30-year-old lefty was peppered for 10 hits and seven runs in the second, third and fourth frames, with Erick Aybar's two-run double and Josh Hamilton's two-run homer the big blows. Kazmir couldn't retire Calhoun or Trout in the fourth before yielding to Jesse Chavez, who allowed both inherited runners to score as well as one of his own, before serving up a long solo shot to Trout in the sixth. While home runs from Alberto Callaspo and Andy Parrino chased Angels starter Jered Weaver in the seventh, the Angels won going away, 9-4.

The A's spent three and a half months — from April 24 through August 17 — owning at least a share of first place in the AL West, but they slipped to second place thanks to a combination of a 1-7 skid and an 8-1 surge by the Angels. After splitting a pair with the Mets, they entered the weekend series two games behind the Halos, matching their furthest distance from first place all season. They won 5-3 on Friday behind a strong start from Sonny Gray, and 2-1 on Saturday as Coco Crisp scooted home on an eighth-inning wild pitch, leaving the two teams tied for the majors’ best record entering Sunday at 76-52.

Those wins also left the A's rather banged up. Before Sunday’s game, the team placed closer Sean Doolittle on the disabled list due to a right intercostal strain, a major blow given what he's meant to the team's bullpen. In addition to his 20 saves, Doolittle had strung together 13 consecutive scoreless innings dating back to July 13, lowering his ERA to 2.28. The most remarkable stat from the 27-year-old reliever, though, is his 16:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio — 80 whiffs against just five walks in 55 1/3 innings. The only pitcher to complete a season while throwing at least 50 innings with a better ratio is another closer who wore the green-and-gold, Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley (18.33 in 1989, 18.25 in 1990).

To replace Doolittle on the roster, the team recalled righty Dan Otero, who put up a 2.28 ERA in 71 innings before being squeezed to Triple-A Sacramento in a recent roster crunch. In Doolittle's absence — which could be a while, as there’s no timetable for his return — manager Bob Melvin is likely to rely upon righties Luke Gregerson and Ryan Cook for ninth-inning duties.

But wait, there's more. Set to go on the seven-day concussion disabled list on Monday is catcher John Jaso, who missed the second half of last season due to a severe concussion, then had symptoms return after taking a foul ball off his mask a couple of weeks ago. While not as severe as those from 2013, they’re bad enough for the team to rest him in the hopes that he can recover for the stretch run. The lefty-swinging Jaso has hit .264/.337/.430 with nine homers while starting 47 games behind the plate and another 32 at DH. His 118 OPS+ is fifth among the team's regulars.

To replace Jaso and compensate for the fact that third-string catcher Stephen Vogt is still limited to emergency duty due to a bone bruise on his right foot, general manager Billy Beane swung a pair of deals for backstops on Sunday, acquiring Geovany Soto from the Rangers as well as Bryan Anderson from the Reds. The 31-year-old Soto, who bats righty, was obtained for cash considerations. He’s played in just 10 major league games this year due to surgery to repair the lateral meniscus of his right knee and then a right groin strain. He's hit .237/.237/.368 in 38 plate appearances, that after hitting a more robust .245/.328/.466 with nine homers in 184 PA for the Rangers last year.

Anderson, a 27-year-old lefty who accumulated 68 PA worth of major league experience with the Cardinals and White Sox from 2010-2013, has split the 2014 season between the Reds' Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, batting .315/.395/.530 with 10 homers in 269 PA. Acquired for international money, he's likely to join Sacramento until the September 1 roster expansion date.

MORE: The Angels Could Push the Athletics Farther in the Playoffs

As if those problems weren't enough, team home-run leader (25) and AL Wins Above Replacement leader Josh Donaldson sat out Sunday's game after undergoing a precautionary MRI on his left knee. The 28-year-old third baseman felt discomfort during his final plate appearance on Saturday night, but after his knee was revealed to be structurally sound, he was reportedly lobbying to get back into the lineup. Even so, Callaspo started in his place. Donaldson has hit .247/.335/.455 (123 OPS+, fourth on the team) this year while playing stellar defense (+19 Defensive Runs Saved).

With Sunday's loss, the A's are just 17-17 since the All-Star break, and 10-12 since trading Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox in the deal that brought Jon Lester. Since that deal, the team has scored just 3.82 runs per game while batting .232/.303/.363, down from 5.00 runs per game on .253/.329/.405 hitting. Even with the loss, they still own an 8-4 season series advantage on the Angels, whom they play seven more times — four in Anaheim starting this coming Thursday, then three in Oakland from September 22-24, their second-to-last series of the regular season.

Still, there’s reason for the A’s to look at the weekend’s outcome with a glass-half-full mentality: They gained ground in the division race despite being less than full strength. Despite their injuries, they’re closer to full strength than the Angels, who lost Garrett Richards for the season earlier this week. Furthermore, they have three games with the Astros in Houston before heading to Anaheim, and own the easier schedule of the two teams the rest of the way. For the moment, that will have to do. 

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