In the past decade, we have seen a number of great division races that lasted until the very end of the season. Ten years ago, the American League West produced one of the wildest, with three teams fighting tooth and nail for the division crown. There were a number of twists and turns, and it all culminated with an exciting finale.
Background: Offseason Moves and Preseason Expectations
After losing their second consecutive World Series, the Rangers maintained their core, with no real adds or subtractions on the offensive side. On the pitching side though, the front office made two big acquisitions, signing Japanese import Yu Darvish and bringing in veteran closer Joe Nathan to accommodate the move of Neftali Feliz to the rotation.
The Angels, however, made the biggest headline-grabbing move of the offseason, signing Albert Pujols to a ten-year contract. The same day as the Pujols signing, the Angels brought in former Rangers ace C.J. Wilson to help solidify a rotation led by 2011 Cy Young runner-up Jered Weaver and three-time All-Star Dan Haren. With slugger Kendrys Morales expected to return to a lineup featuring Rookie of the Year finalist Mark Trumbo and former All-Stars Torii Hunter, Vernon Wells, and Howie Kendrick, the Angels were considered division favorites.
The A"s on the other hand did not have quite the offseason that their division rivals had. Within a month, Oakland dealt away three All-Star pitchers, with all signs pointing towards a rebuild. The first one out the door was Trevor Cahill, who was shipped to Arizona on December 9 for righties Ryan Cook and Jarrod Parker, as well as outfielder Collin Cowgill. Two weeks later, the A"s sent southpaw Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals in exchange for righties AJ Cole and Brad Peacock, lefty Tommy Milone, and catcher Derek Norris. Five days after the Gonzalez trade, Oakland sent former Rookie of the Year closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for infielder Miles Head, right-hander Raul Alcantara, and outfielder Josh Reddick. The A"s did make one splash acquisition though, signing Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
Early Going: All Texas
Through the first month of the season, the Rangers were firing on all cylinders, going 17-6 and going on an eight-game winning streak in the middle of the month. The A"s had an up-and-down month, finishing at 11-13, and getting shut out four times. The Mariners held their own, also going 11-13, though they also struggled with getting shut out. The most disappointment came from Anaheim though, as they went just 8-15 with Pujols not hitting a single homer in the month. Veteran Bobby Abreu also struggled mightily, and he was released at the end of the month to make room on the roster for top prospect Mike Trout. By the end of April, Texas had a 6.5-game lead over Oakland and Seattle, with the Angels 9.5 back.
In May, the Rangers took a bit of a step back, though the month was not without its big moments. On May 8 against the Orioles, Josh Hamilton slugged four homers, becoming the first player since 2003 to accomplish the feat. By the end of the month, Hamilton had 21 homers and 57 runs batted in to go along with a monstrous .368/.420/.764 batting line.
The Angels meanwhile began to round into form, rattling off eight straight wins from May 22-29, pulling back up to .500. On May 2, Jered Weaver tossed a no-hitter in the Angels" 9-0 win over the Twins. The A"s appeared to be headed in the other direction, as they dropped eight games in a row to end the month, putting them at 22-29. Even after a 21-8 drubbing at the hands of the Mariners, the Rangers maintained a 5.5-game lead over the second-place Angels, with Oakland and Seattle both nine games back.
End of First Half: Two-Team Race?
The month of June appeared to signal that the Rangers and Angels were ready to distance themselves from the rest of the division. Spearheaded by Mike Trout"s bat (and glove) and Jered Weaver"s arm, the Angels went 17-9 in June. By the end of the month, Trout had raised his batting line up to .336/.391/.526 with eight homers and 22 steals. On June 27 against the Orioles, Trout made a highlight-reel catch, robbing JJ Hardy of a home run. Weaver meanwhile had put himself firmly in the Cy Young conversation, even after having to miss time with an injury. CJ Wilson had also rounded into form and after Jordan Walden struggled, Ernesto Frieri stepped up to serve as the team"s closer.
In Texas though, the Rangers showed no signs of slowing down. They went 19-9 on the month, including winning 17 of their last 22 games. Even with Hamilton slowing down a bit, other players such as Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli were performing as advertised. The offense was averaging 5.26 runs per game while the pitching staff owned a cumulative 3.70 ERA, which was one of the best marks in the AL. Right when the A"s looked like they were going to make some headway in the standings, the Rangers ended the month by taking three from Oakland, giving Texas a 6.5-game lead over the Angels and putting the A"s 13 games back.
The Rangers lost five of their last seven games heading into the All-Star break, but they still led the division by four games over the Angels and nine games over the A"s. Texas sent a franchise-record eight players to the All-Star Game: Hamilton, Beltre, Napoli, Nathan, Darvish, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler, and Matt Harrison. The Angels meanwhile sent Trout, Trumbo, Wilson, and Weaver to the Midsummer Classic. As for Oakland, their lone representative was Ryan Cook, who had emerged as a strong option for high-leverage situations.
Dog Days of Summer: Division Race Heats Up
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Rangers and Angels both played pedestrian ball, going 7-9 and 9-8, respectively. The big concern for both teams was pitching, as Texas had seen Feliz and Colby Lewis go down with injuries, while the Angels had received subpar results from Haren. On July 27, the Angels sent prospects Johnny Hellweg, Ariel Pena, and Jean Segura to the Brewers in exchange for Zack Greinke. On July 31, Texas sent Christian Villanueva and Kyle Hendricks to the Cubs for National League ERA leader Ryan Dempster. The Rangers also saw Hamilton"s bat cool off considerably, as he hit just .177 with four homers in July.
Meanwhile, the A"s were the hottest team in baseball, winning 12 of 16 out of the break and going 19-5 overall in the month. The gap between the three teams was now just 3.5 games. While Oakland didn"t really make any splashes, they released former All-Star closer Brian Fuentes, giving more high-leverage reps for Cook and Grant Balfour.
In August, the Rangers reverted back to their ways from earlier in the season, going 19-10 for the month. While they weren"t getting the results they hoped for out of Dempster, they saw improved numbers from Derek Holland, and Hamilton bounced back from his rough showing in July. In Anaheim, the Angels lost 12 of their first 17 games of the month, dropping their record to 62-60. However, they finished the month by going 8-2, with Trout cementing himself as the Rookie of the Year favorite.
In Oakland, the A"s won seven straight to close out an 18-10 month, including a 20-2 rout over the Red Sox. The pitching rotation of Milone, Parker, Travis Blackley, Brandon McCarthy, and Brett Anderson had emerged as one of the best in MLB while Cook and Balfour continued to dominate the back end of games. Reddick, Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, and Brandon Moss had all caught fire at the plate, leading the lineup to scoring its most runs in a month all year. By the end of August, the A"s had surpassed the Angels in the standings and now trailed the Rangers by four games.
After Oakland"s winning streak reached nine games, they were swept by the Angels in a three-game series, closing the gap slightly between the two teams. This helped the Rangers up their lead to 5.5 games after they won their first two series on the month. The Angels then strung together a six-game winning streak, while the A"s swept the Mariners and the Rangers dropped a series against the Rays. This set up and key four-game set between the A"s and Angels in Anaheim, the last series between the two teams. Oakland took three of the four games, putting them 4.5 games up on the Halos and within three games of the Rangers.
Following that series though, the A"s hit a rare rough patch, losing six of seven at one point, while the Angels went on an 8-3 run. The Rangers continued to hang onto their lead, setting up a four-game series with the A"s in Arlington. After Adrian Beltre"s walk-off single sealed the first game of that series, the Rangers" division lead increased to five games with just nine games left to go. All the Rangers had to do to lock up their third straight division title was win two of the next three games. The A"s fired back though, winning the next two games, before the Rangers won the final game to earn a series split, and lower their magic number down to two. Meanwhile, the Angels dropped the finale of series with the Mariners, eliminating them from division contention.
To finish out September, the Angels flew to Arlington to take on the Rangers, while Oakland hosted the last-place Mariners. The Angels jumped on Dempster in the series opener, earning a 7-4 victory before a doubleheader two days later. The win also gave Jered Weaver his 20th victory of the season. The A"s handily won the first game of their series, but trailed 4-1 entering the eighth inning of the second game. With Seattle closer Tom Wilhelmsen in for a five-out save, Moss cut into the deficit with an RBI double, and in the ninth, Josh Donaldson cracked a game-tying two-run homer, sending the game to extras. In the bottom of the 10th, Moss smacked a walk-off three-run homer, further closing the gap in the division.
Meanwhile in game 1 of the Sunday doubleheader, the Rangers attacked Greinke for four runs, but the Angels chipped away to make the score 4-3 headed to the ninth. After Maicer Izturis singled and Chris Iannetta walked, Torii Hunter stunned the Rangers with a two-out, two-run double off Nathan, giving the Angels a 5-4 lead. Frieri sealed the win with a 1-2-3 ninth inning, keeping the Rangers" magic number at 2. The Angels jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the nightcap, but the Rangers fired back thanks to two homers and six RBIs from Napoli to earn an 8-7 victory.
Back in Oakland, the A"s finished off their sweep of the Mariners thanks to eighth-inning homers from Cespedes and Reddick. This set up a three-game series to finish off the season between the Rangers and A"s in Oakland, with the Rangers needing just one win to seal the division. The Angels were still alive for the playoffs too, but they needed the A"s to lose out to force a one-game playoff for a Wild Card spot.
The Final Series
Oakland jumped on the board in the bottom of the first in game 1 with an RBI single from Reddick and Perez balking home a run later in the inning. The Rangers evened up the score with an RBI single from Andrus in the third and then a solo homer from Michael Young in the fourth. The A"s went ahead in the fifth with an RBI double from Coco Crisp and a sac fly from Moss, handing Parker a 4-2 lead. Napoli brought the Rangers a little closer with a solo homer in the seventh, which ended Parker"s night. The combination of Sean Doolittle, Cook, and Balfour retired the last nine Texas batters though, giving Oakland a 4-3 win. The victory closed the gap in the division to just one game and secured Oakland"s first playoff spot since 2006 and thus eliminating the Angels from postseason contention.
Game 2 was a bit of a pitchers duel between Blackley and Harrison, with Hamilton giving the Rangers a third-inning lead with an RBI double. The A"s answered in the bottom of the fifth, with Derek Norris knocking an RBI single that was a coupled with a Nelson Cruz error, giving Oakland a 2-1 lead. Gomes added a solo homer in the sixth, and that was more than enough for the Oakland pitching staff. For the second straight night, Doolittle and Cook tossed scoreless innings, and Balfour struck out two in a clean ninth inning to secure the win. The division was deadlocked, setting up one last game to decide the division the following afternoon.
Rookie AJ Griffin took the hill against Dempster for game 162, and the A"s struck first with on a Moss RBI double. In the top of the third though, the Rangers jumped on Griffin. Beltre knocked an RBI single, Young hit an RBI double, and David Murphy smacked a two-run single to give Texas the 4-1 advantage. After George Kottaras muffed a pop-up, Geovanny Soto capped off the rally with an RBI single, ending Griffin"s day.
The A"s weren"t going away though, and they responded in the bottom of the fourth with an RBI from Reddick and an RBI single by Seth Smith, ending Dempster"s outing. After Derek Holland recorded two outs, Coco Crisp evened the score with a two-run double. After Stephen Drew walked, Cespedes hit a routine fly ball to center field, and Hamilton lost the ball in the sun, causing the ball to glance off his glove, allowing both Crisp and Drew to score, giving the A"s a 7-5 lead. Norris added an RBI single in the fifth, extending the lead to 8-5.
Meanwhile, Evan Scribner pitched three scoreless innings, before handing the ball to Jerry Blevins, who struck out Hamilton to end the sixth inning. Cook came in to replace Blevins in the seventh and immediately surrendered a double to Cruz, giving the Rangers runners on second and third with no outs. Cook buckled down though, inducing Young to ground out and striking out Murphy and Napoli. Doolittle pitched a scoreless eighth, setting the stage for Balfour to come in and shut the door.
In the bottom of the eighth, Norris greeted Alexi Ogando with a leadoff homer. After two walks and an Ian Kinsler error, Moss singled into right field and Cruz failed to pick up the ball cleanly, committing the Rangers" third error of the day and allowing Drew and Cespedes to also come around and score. With a 12-5 lead, Balfour entered and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning, inducing a Michael Young flyout to seal the victory. Despite the Rangers having a nearly-100 percent chance to win the division nine days earlier, the A"s had won their first division title in six years, ending the Rangers" run atop the division.
In the first year with two Wild Card spots, the Rangers hosted the Orioles for a chance to face the Yankees in the ALDS. Texas" woes continued and the Orioles were able to jump on Darvish. The Rangers" season ended with David Murphy flying out while representing the tying run.
While Oakland"s playoff run didn"t last very long, it didn"t go without its big moments. After falling behind 2-0 against the Tigers, the A"s fought back with a game 3 win. In game 4, the A"s trailed 3-1 going into the ninth inning, but Smith hit a two-run double against Detroit closer Jose Valverde to tie the game. With two outs, Crisp hit a walk-off RBI single, keeping Oakland"s season alive. Unfortunately, Justin Verlander twirled a complete-game shutout the next night, sending the A"s home.
After finishing fifth in MVP voting, Hamilton left the Rangers, signing a five-year deal with the Angels. Trout won AL Rookie of the Year and finished second in MVP voting, while Cespedes was the runner-up to Trout in the Rookie of the Year vote, and Parker finished fifth in the race. Cespedes also finished 10th in MVP voting, with Reddick finishing 16th. The A"s won the AL West again in 2013 before they were dethroned by the Angels in 2014.
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