WPA graph from Fangraphs)
A's current record: 5-2
Watching Dallas Braden when he's going well is as entertaining as it gets. Seeing hitters flail at his change-up reminds me of how much I enjoyed watching batters freeze or buckle when facing Barry Zito's curve. There's something about watching major league hitters look foolish against 70 MPH pitches that really tickles my fancy.
The thing about Braden, and most other soft tossers as well, is that their margin for error is small. He gave up a couple hard hit balls in the first inning that led to the Angels scoring two runs. After getting Erick Aybar to ground out to start the bottom of the first, Braden tried to run a 3-1 fastball in on Bobby Abreu. The pitch was not inside enough, nor was it hard enough, and Abreu hit it into the right field stands. The location of the pitch wasn't horrible, yes it was a bit high in the zone, but was only a couple of inches from the inside corner. But when you're throwing 86 MPH fastballs, though, those inches matter big-time.
After the rough first inning, Braden settled down and pitched four perfect innings before allowing a run in the 6th. Although he only struck out one Angels in those four frames, he got six ground ball outs and none of the fly balls that were hit were particularly threatening. He also did well to escape major damage in the bottom of the sixth. After the first two batters of the inning singled to set up a first and third, no out situation, he gave up only a sac fly to Torii Hunter to keep the A's in the game.
Braden was fun to watch, even if he didn't dominate the Angels the way he did the Mariners on Tuesday. The A's offense, on the other hand, was downright painful to look at through the first six innings. Joe Saunders retired all but two of the batters he faced through six innings; he walked Rajai Davis in the first and gave up a solo homer to Adam Rosales in the second. It was hard to see why Saunders was having so much success; he only struck out two and was consistently falling behind in the count. The A's just couldn't make any hard contact and until the seventh inning, it looked like he'd cruise to a relatively easy win.
That wasn't to be, though, as the A's led off the seventh inning with three straight hits that closed the deficit to one run and knocked Saunders from the game. Mike Scioscia brought in Kevin Jepsen, who immediately struck out Jake Fox. Jepsen, though, couldn't get out of the jam as Rosales gave the A's the lead for good by taking a 96 MPH fastball the other way to drive in two runs.
Anaheim turned to Scot Shields in the eighth and the A's managed to put the game out of reach. Davis started the inning with a walk and a steal. So far, so good. Barton sacrificed him to third. Meh, with a one run lead late in the game I'm OK with playing for one insurance run, but it was still only the seventh and Barton has been the A's best hitter. While this wasn't the choice I would have made, it was defensible. Doing it in the first inning, though, was just stupid.
Now the A's have one out and a runner on third. Ryan Sweeney walked. Good. Sweeney attempted to steal 2nd. Eh, not the worst decision in the world - Shields looked slow to the plate, Napoli is either the world's worst defensive catcher or slept with Mike Scioscia's wife, and Kouzmanoff is somewhat likely to hit into a double play. BUT he got a terrible, terrible jump and got thrown out at second. Shields didn't speed up his delivery and didn't throw a particularly easy pitch for Napoli to handle. Nevertheless, Sweeney was about by a mile.
Thankfully, the A's lucked into scoring three more runs in the inning. Mark Ellis reached base on an error by Brandon Wood, even though replays showed that he was actually thrown out at first. This allowed Davis to score from third. Fox and Rosales walked and Gabe Gross singled to give the A's a 7-3 advantage. They tacked on two more in the ninth and put the game further out of reach.
I think this series did a lot more in exposing the two teams' weaknesses than it did highlight their strengths. The Angels bullpen is mediocre at best and Scioscia is only making things worse by relying so heavily on Scot Shields. The A's offense struggles against good pitchers, but in this series at least, was able to make up for it by beating up on average (or worse) arms. It's nice to have had early success against division rivals and we'll see if they can keep it up in Seattle.