The Los Angeles Angels looked so good last week while sweeping a three-game series in Oakland. That seems like a distant memory now.
The Angels dropped their third straight to the Athletics at home Wednesday night, as rookie A.J. Griffin outpitched Ervin Santana with eight scoreless innings in a 4-1 victory to improve to 6-0 in his first 11 big league starts.
"I think it's just a matter of opportunities we've had these last three games and taking advantage of those," Angels left fielder Vernon Wells said. "They've done it more than we have. That's why we're in the situation we are now in this series."
The only bright spot for the Angels was Albert Pujols' leadoff homer in the ninth against Sean Doolittle, before Ryan Cook came in to get one out for his 14th save. The homer made Pujols the first player in history with at least 30 in each of his first 12 big league seasons, and tied Stan Musial and Willie Stargell for 28th place on the career list with No. 475.
The Athletics, who can sweep the four-game series by beating Angels ace Jered Weaver on Thursday, have won 15 of 18 and are 22 games over .500 (82-60) for the first time since the 2006 club finished 93-69.
Oakland, the AL wild-card leader, stayed three games behind first-place Texas in the AL West. But the surprising A's have a five-game cushion with 20 to play in the race for the league's final postseason spot.
"We still have a chance to catch them, but we know we've got our work cut out for us," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "Every game that ticks off obviously puts more focus on the next game."
Santana (8-12) was charged with two runs — one earned — and four hits over six innings. He struck out six.
Yoenis Cespedes' 18th homer was the 35th allowed by the eight-year veteran, the most in the majors and the most in his career.
"Ervin's always challenged hitters, and I think it's always been part of his game," Scioscia said. "But it's a double-edged sword. It's part of the reason why he's been successful, and at times it's going to get you. When you're challenging guys and missing over the heart of the plate, guys are going to get good looks at it."
For the eighth time this season, Santana's teammates didn't score while he was in the game — including five straight starts by the right-hander in which the Angels were shut out.
"A week ago we were playing great baseball, and right now we've hit a little bump in the road," Scioscia said. "It takes one good game to get you on track, one good inning. Unfortunately, we haven't swung the bats early in the games against Oakland in this series to give us a chance to do some things. But those guys have been pitching great all year, and this series they matched up well against us and are doing a good job."
The Angels got a scare in the fourth when Santana was struck on the right arm by a line drive off Josh Donaldson's bat. He scrambled after the ball in time to get the force at second base on Brandon Moss, then was allowed to take a few practice pitches to test his arm after Scioscia and trainer Adam Nevala went out to check on him.
"Ervin went after it tonight. Unfortunately, we didn't support him like we needed," Scioscia said. "I thought he just didn't get a fastball in to Cespedes enough. But outside of that, he stayed in there after he got hit on the wrist and pitched a strong game."
Oakland got an unearned run in the first when Josh Reddick doubled with two outs and scored on an error by shortstop Erick Aybar. Cespedes made it 2-0 with his sixth-inning homer, ending a career-worst 22-game homerless drought. The A's tacked on two runs in the eighth with Derek Norris' RBI double and an RBI single by Coco Crisp.
The A's won their 12th consecutive road game, matching the 1971 squad for the longest streak since the club relocated from Kansas City to Oakland in 1968. The franchise record is 14 in a row set in May 1931, when the team was in Philadelphia.
Oakland's road winning streak is the longest in the majors since 2003, when Seattle won 13 straight away from Safeco Field.
Griffin (6-0) struck out six and walked none in his longest major league start. The 24-year-old right-hander, one of four rookies in the A's rotation along with Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily and Tommy Milone, lowered his ERA to 1.94 in his third start off the disabled list.
The only other A's pitcher since 1927 to win his first six big league decisions was Jim Nash, who was 7-0 over his first nine starts in 1966.
"I just try to detach myself from that kind of stuff," Griffin said. "But you've got to go out there with confidence. ... It's pretty much the same game up here. They just don't miss as much when you make a mistake."
NOTES: The Angels haven't been swept in a four-game set by Oakland since the final series of the 2001 season, when they finished the schedule with a 2-19 thud. ... Pujols, relegated to DH duty for the past 15 games because of a sore right calf, is hitting .317 with two homers and 10 RBIs during that stretch. ... Aybar's error was his 13th, matching last season's total when he won his first Gold Glove.