OAKLAND -- You would think a franchise-record 59 wins at the All-Star break would buy a club more breathing room than the 1½-game edge the A's have as second-half play resumes Friday.
Welcome to the American League West, home of not just the winningest team in the Major Leagues in the A's, but the home of the second-best team in the Angels. And third-place Seattle seems to be the equal of any of the other dozen teams unmentioned.
Billy Beane wasn't kidding when the A's general manager said it would be presumptuous to consider Oakland's Fourth of July trade for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel a deal designed to make the A's a better October team. Beane was looking down the muzzle of an Angels' winning streak that was only blunted at 19 wins in 23 games by the four-day All-Star break.
What would be presumptuous now would be to think the A's and Angels will stand pat in the two weeks leading to the July 31 trade deadline. If the Anaheim crew is going to catch Oakland, it will need another starting pitcher, with C.J. Wilson (ankle) on the disabled list and not having won since June 24.
The Angels have already dumped closer Ernesto Frieri in favor of Jason Grilli, and they have been linked to both Jonathan Papelbon and Huston Street as they look to shore up their bullpen.
During their hot streak the Angels pitchers have a 3.63 ERA. The A's played 22 times over the same stretch starting June 20. And while the A's were not as dominant, they still won about two-thirds of their games (14-8) and they did it with a pitching staff that had a 3.31 ERA over that stretch.
What will the A's do to counter-punch? They will be (and have been) looking for an upgrade at second base. Eric Sogard's defense hasn't been enough to counterbalance an offensive dropoff, and current member of the disabled list Alberto Callaspo's offense, while better, comes with a defensive cost. Nick Punto is the third man there, and he will get more time in the next two weeks.
The A's have been taking long looks at Jason Kipnis (Cleveland) and Ben Zobrist (Toronto), two second baseman who are available, scouts say. It's not at all clear that the Phillies would trade Chase Utley, or how steep the price would be if they did, But Oakland would have to be interested if they did.
The A's had a much more difficult road in getting to 59 wins than the Angels did in getting to 57, which is an inside-out way of saying Oakland has an easier path in terms of schedule the rest of the way. In the next two weeks, for example, Oakland has three games against a contender, the Orioles, then nine against the bottom of the AL West, Houston (40-56) and Texas (38-57). In the same span the Angels play three against the best third-place team in baseball, Seattle, and six against the Orioles (52-42) and four against the Tigers (53-38), both first-place teams.
The A's began the season with five consecutive three-city road trips, the last four of which stretched into the Eastern Time Zone.
``For the most part, these guys don't look too far past who we'll be playing today,'' manager Bob Melvin said. ``The one thing that everybody has noticed that the schedule gets better for us as far as the travel goes. We've had a lot of tough trips, the three-city trips, and we've gotten those out of the way. Hopefully that's a benefit for us.''
In making those three-city trips, the A's played most of the prime contenders on their docket. So Oakland is now sitting with what on paper is the softest schedule of any contender in either league: 67 games, of which 38 are against sub-.500 teams and 29 against teams with winning records. Of those games against sub-.500 teams, 28 or 41.7 percent are against teams eight games or more under .500 at the break.
Compare that to the Angels, who follow their crushing late-July schedule with four games against the NL West-leading Dodgers Aug. 4-7, then 17 games from Aug. 22 on against formidable Oakland and Seattle teams. In all, the Angels have 36 games against teams at .500 or better.
That being said, the A's can't count on the softer schedule do glide through to the playoffs.
``Right now, we're where we expected ourselves to be,'' All-Star closer Sean Doolittle said. ``We respect the job we still have to do. Are we the team to beat? We don't look at it like that. We believe in playing day-to-day. We know (the Angels) are coming hard. We just have to keep playing our game.''
The A's have been passed by the Angels as the top-scoring team in baseball, Oakland trailing 478-466. That's in part because of a home run skid on the A's and in part on running up against some monster pitching in the stretch of 17 consecutive games heading up to the All-Star break.
At the same time, the A's pitchers have allowed 68 fewer runs than the Angels. Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez all ranks in the top 12 in AL ERA, but the workload has been heavy, so even with the additions of Samardzija and Hammel, the A's will have Triple-A starters Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz on speed dial.
``We have to feel pretty good about where we're at,'' All-Star third baseman Josh Donaldson said. ``But there is a whole lot of work to do. I don't think you've necessarily seen our best baseball yet. This is a good group. Guys will step up.''
The A's could use the energy boost a healthy Josh Reddick (right knee) and Coco Crisp (neck) could give them in right and center, respectively. Both might be ready come Friday.
And a decision has to be made about one-time closer Jim Johnson, who is essentially the long man in the bullpen. Clearly the experiment of importing him from Baltimore to close has not worked, and it seems likely in the run-up to the trade deadline, he could be moved.
To start the second half, however, it's just about continuing to do what they've been doing.
``People can write about what they want to write about, they can talk about what they want to talk about, we just go out and play and try to win a particular game,'' Melvin said. ``Our division is good. Seattle is good. Anaheim has been unbelievable here recently.
``So we just simplify. We just play.''