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Angels' extra-inning win over A's kicks off key series in fitting fashion

Their ace is done for the year. They’re still getting almost nothing from their $125-million leftfielder. Their rotation is in such disarray that they don’t have a starter for Saturday. And yet the Los Angeles Angels keep rolling, and right now they are clearly the best team in baseball.

All eyes were on Anaheim on Thursday night, as the A’s and Angels met in the first game of a titanic four-game series -- and the opener did not disappoint: a 3 - hour, 44 minute epic with a little of everything. There was the Best Player in Baseball coming up with bases loaded with two outs in the ninth … and grounding out. There was a big home run from an MVP candidate not named Mike Trout. And there was a controversial call that inspired a team to play the game under protest.

The Angels beat the A’s 4-3 on Thursday, and in doing so opened up a two-game lead in the AL West. The game was played under protest by A’s manager Bob Melvin because of a disputed obstruction call that allowed Erick Aybar to reach base to start the bottom of the ninth, but because the Angels didn’t end up scoring that inning --- Trout grounded out with the bases loaded in a tie game loaded to end the inning --- there’s little chance that the protest will be upheld. Instead, Howie Kendrick drove in Albert Pujols on a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 10th, and the Angels prevailed in this clash between the division rivals who own the two best records in baseball.

Adam Wainwright out of sync, missing Yadier Molina's presence behind plate

​We all know what’s at stake here: the loser of the division faces a one-game wild card playoff, a potential date with Felix Hernandez, David Price, or Max Scherzer. Tough loss for the A’s. Big win for the Angels.

The real story of the game was the Angels bullpen, which is the biggest reason why L.A. is in first place and a main factor in why it will be dangerous in October. After a shaky start from C.J. Wilson, the bullpen was brilliant, combining for 4 1/3 hitless innings. Mike Morin entered the game with the bases loaded in the top of the fifth and struck out Stephen Vogt to escape the inning. Mike Scioscia then turned to Kevin Jepsen, who pitched a scoreless seventh. Joe Smith was next with a scoreless eighth, Huston Street needed just 12 pitches in the top of the ninth to set the A’s down in order, and Fernando Salas pitched a perfect 10th.

The night began though with Wilson taking the mound, and the lefty will clearly become a critical player for the Angels down the stretch with Garrett Richards out. Wilson had pitched well in three straight starts; last weekend he allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings in Saturday’s loss to the A’s. On Thursday, he gave up three runs over 5 2/3 innings in another underwhelming home appearance -- Wilson has struggled at Angels Stadium this season, and entering Thursday he had a 7.46 ERA in his last five home starts at home. Wilson was cruising early, but with a three-run lead, he seemed to stop challenging A’s hitters, and it cost him. But the Angels bullpen took care of the rest after Wilson left the game during the sixth.

For the A’s, it was another encouraging outing for Sonny Gray, who ended a month-long losing streak last week when he pitched into the ninth inning andhis team to a win over the Angels in Oakland. On Thursday, Gray labored through the second inning, and just when it looked like he would escape the inning with allowing just one run, Gordon Beckham hit a two-out looping liner to right field to give the Angels a 3-0 lead. The righty threw 35 curveballs, more than any other pitch, against the Angels last week, but didn’t seem to have a great feel for his best pitch early on Thursday until settling down -- still, this was a good start for Gray, whom the A's will need big contributions from as the season winds down.

But the A’s offense, which averaged 5.00 runs a game before the July 31 trade deadline and was averaging 4.00 since entering Thursday, continues to slump. Josh Donaldson had a big night, with a home run, double and two walks, but Derek Norris went 0-for-5 after beginning the night hitting .238/.298/.352 since the All-Star break. Brandon Moss remained stuck on 23 home runs going back to July 24. If the A’s are going to take the division, Norris and Moss are going to have to turn things around very soon.

The series continues Friday night, with Jon Lester taking on Jered Weaver, and after that the series gets even more interesting: the Angels still have not decided on a starting pitcher for Saturday’s tilt. Among the options are veteran lefthanderRandy Wolf, who is 5-2 with a 4.63 ERA in 12 starts at Triple-A and Michael Roth, who is 11-7 with a 2.62 ERA at Double-A Arkansas.

After a strange and thrilling start to one of the biggest series of the year, six games remain this season between the two best teams in the majors. The most fascinating race in baseball is just starting to heat up.