The Los Angeles Angels won the American League West on Wednesday night, but as has been the case for much of the season's past month and a half, the path to popping champagne had as much to do with what the Oakland Athletics could not do as with what the Angels could.
Not long after L.A. wrapped up a tidy 5-0 win over the Mariners in Anaheim to reduce its magic number for its first division crown since 2009 to one, the A's imploded up the California coast. Entering the top of the ninth three outs away from a 1-0 win over the Rangers that would have not only kept their miniscule division title hopes alive but also stretched their lead for a wild-card spot to three games over Seattle, the A's somehow managed to lose 6-1. Before that fateful ninth inning, Oakland manager Bob Melvin elected to remove starter Jeff Samardzija, who had thrown 116 pitches to that point but had allowed just four hits and no walks while striking out 10. And like just about everything Melvin and the A's have tried as their AL West lead evaporated in the past six weeks, this decision blew up in their stunned faces.
Sean Doolittle, an All-Star at midseason, was making just his third appearance after returning from the disabled list. Those two outings were spotless. This one was anything but. After retiring Leonys Martin, Doolittle surrendered a single to Elvis Andrus and a game-tying RBI double to Rougned Odor, who went to third on the throw home and survived a replay challenge to stay there. Adrian Beltre was then intentionally walked and J.P. Arencibia — who to that point was 0-for-3 with three strikeouts — launched a mammoth three-run homer to give Texas a 4-1 lead.
That the Rangers tacked on two more runs only served to make Oakland's latest meltdown more surreal. In some ways, Wednesday's game was a microcosm for the Athletics' entire season. They held a lead, but not a comfortable one (despite having the best record in baseball for much of the summer, their biggest AL West advantage in the second half was a mere four games), they missed a golden opportunity to take care of things on their own (losing six of seven to the Angels in the second half and failing to score in the bottom of the eighth on Wednesday despite having the bases loaded and nobody out) and once things started going bad, there was no end in sight. Oakland led the AL West by four games on Aug. 8, but since then has gone 12-24, the worst record in the AL and next-to-worst in the majors, while the Angels ripped off a 29-9 run for the best winning percentage in that time.
Aside from losing starting pitcher Garrett Richards to a season-ending knee injury on Aug. 20, very little has gone wrong for Los Angeles in that time. But one of the few question marks for the Angels as they steamrolled toward October involved C.J. Wilson. Expected to be the team's co-ace along with Jered Weaver and coming off a 17-7 season with a 3.39 ERA in 2013, Wilson's 2014 has been one long disappointment ever since he gave up six earned runs in his first start of the season. He had a modest resurgence in the spring, but starting with a June 24 game against the Twins in which he allowed six earned runs in five innings (though he did get the win), Wilson had four disaster starts (more earned runs than innings pitched) in five turns.
Over his 13 most recent starts entering Wednesday, Wilson had a 6.64 ERA and an almost unfathomable 1.94 WHIP. Part of those struggles may have been due to injury — he missed most of July with a sprained ankle — and part of it was bad luck (opponents batted .379 on balls in play). But nothing could take away from the central fact that Wilson was looking nothing like the trusted No. 2 starter the Angels had hoped he would be in October.
On Wednesday, however, Wilson looked as good as he has all season. He allowed just one hit to Seattle over seven innings, striking out seven and allowing three walks. It was the fewest hits he’d allowed in a start all year and just the second time he didn’t give up a run.
Assuming everything stays on schedule the rest of the season, Wilson will make a pair of tuneup starts the rest of the regular season. The first will come next Monday in Oakland. For much of the season, it seemed that that series would go a long way toward deciding which team won the AL West. Wilson's win in Anaheim and Oakland's meltdown on Wednesday ensured that will no longer be the case.