The Oakland Athletics ' remarkable turnaround over the last three months has them atop the AL wild-card race, and the West leaders are well within reach.
The Baltimore Orioles are already enjoying the view from the top of their division.
There's plenty at stake for these two surprising contenders as this series kicks off Friday in Oakland, where the first-place Orioles look to clinch their first winning season since making their last playoff appearance in 1997.
Coming into the season, a mid-September series between Oakland (82-61) and Baltimore (81-62) seemed likely to garner about as much buzz as a sparsely attended spring training game. Instead, this three-game set has wide-ranging ramifications.
The Athletics' 56-26 record since June 11 is baseball's best, and the numbers in that stretch - 118 homers and a 3.21 ERA, both second in the majors - offer plenty of evidence for why they've been so effective.
Baltimore's rise is harder to quantify. The Orioles have a negative-20 run differential, but they've been nearly unbeatable in close games. They wrapped up a three-game sweep of fellow contender Tampa Bay on Thursday with a 3-2 victory in 14 innings, improving to 27-7 in one-run games with their 13th straight extra-inning win.
That guaranteed Baltimore would finish with at least a .500 record, but considering it's tied with the Yankees atop the East, that's not the end game for manager Buck Showalter's club."There's a bigger goal in mind," Showalter said. "That wasn't the goal from Day One this spring. Really, Day One of the offseason. It's watching other teams for years and saying, `We want to do what they're doing. We'd like to get a chair at the dance, you know?'"
Oakland is also currently sitting in one as the top wild card and lurking three games behind West-leading Texas. It was denied a sweep of Anaheim with a 6-0 loss Thursday, but after winning the previous three games, is 4 1/2 games up on the Angels - currently third in the wild-card chase - to make the postseason cut.
Friday marks the start of Oakland's lone home series in a 20-game stretch. After this weekend, the A's play three in Detroit, three in New York and four at Texas."It doesn't get any easier, but I don't think there are any easy teams in the American League, to tell the truth," manager Bob Melvin said. "At times, you'll catch teams when they're down, but everybody we play from now until the end of the year we'll consider basically the same type of challenge and we'll have to play well to win."
Oakland and Baltimore split six previous meetings - all at Camden Yards - and neither of Friday's starters were involved. The Orioles' Joe Saunders (2-1, 4.24 ERA) was with Arizona during those previous contests, but he'll be looking for a third straight win in the opener.
Saunders had a rocky debut with Baltimore on Aug. 29 but tossed 6 1-3 scoreless innings at Toronto on Sept. 3, then held the Yankees to two runs over 5 1-3 in Saturday's 5-4 victory.
The left-hander held Oakland to two runs over six innings in a 4-3 win for the Diamondbacks on June 10, improving to 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA in his last four starts against the A's.
Oakland center fielder Yoenis Cespedes missed that game with an injury, and Saunders may avoid him again. Cespedes left Thursday's game with a sprained left wrist and is day to day.
The A's hand the ball to Tommy Milone (12-10, 3.90), who has never faced Baltimore. Milone tied a career high with 10 strikeouts while holding Seattle to two runs over six innings in a 4-2 road win Sunday.
The left-hander, whose home ERA was 0.91 through eight starts, has a 6.75 ERA in Oakland over his last five.
|September 11, 2012||Jason Hammel||Day-to-Day||Left game - right knee injury|
|September 09, 2012||Nick Markakis||Day-to-Day||Broken left thumb|
|September 02, 2012||Chris Tillman||Day-to-Day||Left game - stiff right elbow|
|August 22, 2012||Matt Wieters||Day-to-Day||Left game - right shoulder contusion|
|August 13, 2012||Troy Patton||15-Day DL||Sprained right ankle|
|August 12, 2012||Wilson Betemit||15-Day DL||Sore right wrist|
|September 05, 2012||Brandon McCarthy||Day-to-Day||Left game - head injury|
|September 02, 2012||Brandon Inge||Day-to-Day||Dislocated right shoulder|
|September 02, 2012||Brandon Inge||15-Day DL||Strained right shoulder|
|August 18, 2012||Jordan Norberto||15-Day DL||Left shoulder tendinitis|
|August 12, 2012||Brandon Inge||15-Day DL||Dislocated right shoulder|
|August 12, 2012||Brandon Inge||15-Day DL||Dislocated right shoulder|
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) -- The Oakland Athletics hardly needed any additional motivation for this key September series with playoff implications. Then injured pitcher Brandon McCarthy showed up in the clubhouse before the game.
Yoenis Cespedes hit a two-run homer while playing with a sore right wrist, and the AL wild card-leading A's beat Baltimore 3-2 on Friday night to prevent the Orioles from moving into sole possession of first place in the AL East.
"My body might be tired but I'm strong in my mind," Cespedes said.
Jonny Gomes hit a go-ahead RBI single in the fifth to back A's rookie Tommy Milone in the opener of an important series between surprising postseason contenders. Oakland (83-61) came off the field from batting practice to find McCarthy doing a crossword puzzle, barely a week after he was struck in the head by a line drive and underwent surgery.
"I know it was a big pick-me-up for everybody to see him," manager Bob Melvin said.
The Orioles (81-63) remained tied atop the division with the New York Yankees , who lost 6-4 at home to Tampa Bay.
Milone (13-10) allowed one earned run over 6 1-3 innings to win for the fourth time in five starts. He induced three double plays, allowed six hits, struck out two and walked two. His 13 wins are an Oakland rookie record.
A's starters have walked three or fewer batters in 43 straight games. The defense turned four double plays in all.
"It's huge," Milone said. "It's momentum killers for them."
McCarthy, the team's opening-day starter, was hit in the head by a liner from the Angels' Erick Aybar on Sept. 5. He was released from the hospital Tuesday.
Gomes had everybody sign a batting helmet for the pitcher with the words "heads up" written on the bill.
Cespedes, the rookie from Cuba, connected for his 19th home run and third in four games. That gave Oakland 85 homers since the All-Star break.
Cespedes played left field and batted cleanup a day after leaving a loss to the Angels in the fifth inning after injuring his right wrist on a slide.
"I'm going to rest after we get a championship," Cespedes said. "I'm going to be in the lineup every day."
Chris Davis then tied it at 2 when he hit his 26th home run leading off the fifth.
The sellout crowd of 35,067 - a big turnout for fireworks night - booed Baltimore starter Joe Saunders (2-2) when he intentionally walked Cespedes in the fifth.
Oakland's bullpen produced another impressive game. After All-Star Ryan Cook struck out two in a perfect eighth, Grant Balfour finished for his 18th save in 20th chances.
"We might be the first time in history to have fireworks after every game in the playoffs," Balfour joked of the unusually large crowd.
Matt Wieters beat out an infield single to start the ninth and Xavier Avery entered to pinch run. Pinch-hitter Endy Chavez struck out swinging, then Mark Reynolds flied out. Catcher Derek Norris threw out Avery stealing to end the 2-hour, 37-minute game that resembled a playoff atmosphere.
"We're fighting for the same goal and they made some good pitches when they needed," Reynolds said. "They got us to ground into some double plays. It's frustrating."
Another blow for the Orioles: Infielder Wilson Betemit is likely done for the season with further wrist problems.
Activated from the disabled list Sept. 1 after going down Aug. 12 with an injured right wrist, Betemit aggravated it again during batting practice.
"He felt it grab again. He's really down," manager Buck Showalter said. "I don't like our chances of getting him back this year."
Saunders allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings, struck out six and walked two. He had a two-start winning streak stopped in his fourth outing since being acquired from Arizona on Aug. 26.
The left-hander is 13-5 in 20 career starts against the A's, but was 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA over his previous four against Oakland with two complete games and a shutout.
The Orioles gave Saunders a lead in the third when Manny Machado scored on third baseman Josh Donaldson 's error. The ball hit off of Donaldson's glove arm and popped high toward shortstop Stephen Drew .
Prior to this season, the last time these clubs met after the All-Star break each with records above .500 was Sept. 2, 1992, according to STATS LLC.
Oakland No. 9 hitter Adam Rosales doubled and scored as the A's improved to 52-4 when giving up two or fewer runs.
NOTES: A's 3B Brandon Inge underwent successful arthroscopic surgery Thursday on his right shoulder to repair the labrum. The operation was performed in Detroit by Dr. Stephen Lemos, the Tigers' orthopedic surgeon. He hopes to be ready for spring training 2013. ... Orioles LHP Troy Patton (right ankle) is scheduled to throw an inning Sunday at instructional league. ... The Orioles still haven't named a starter for Sunday's series finale. LHP Randy Wolf is a candidate. ... RHP Jarrod Parker (10-8) pitches Saturday against Orioles LHP Zach Britton (5-2).