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OAK@LAA: Pujols crushes career home run No. 475

ANAHEIM -- Whatever mojo or groove or good vibrations the Angels possessed over the last few weeks, when they posted a Major League-best 15-3 record to put themselves back in the postseason picture heading into this series, is gone now. It was evident Wednesday night, in a 4-1 loss to the A's that marked a third straight game in which the Angels' offense has fallen flat against young, talented pitching.

The question is: How do they get it back?

And will they have enough time?

"For us," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "it's very clear: We've been playing really good baseball the last 30 games or so. We need one good inning, one good game to get us back on track and hopefully finish strong."

The Angels have already mustered two season-saving runs, after starting off the year 6-14 and starting the second half 14-22. Now, three straight losses to the Wild Card-leading A's have put them 3 1/2 back of the Orioles and Yankees -- also tied atop the AL East -- for the second AL Wild Card spot, with the Rays also in that predicament.

By dropping the first three of a four-game set against an A's team they swept in Oakland just last week, the Angels have wasted a premium opportunity to catapult themselves into meaningful October baseball.

Albert Pujols would prefer not to look at it that way, though.

"In reality, no," said Pujols, who hit a ninth-inning homer to become the first player in history to hit 30-plus in each of his first 12 seasons. "Of course, we would've loved to win a series against them because they're in first place in the Wild Card. But at the same time, there are still 19 games ahead of us. That's a lot of games and a lot of things can happen. They have a lot of games against tough teams, just like we do."

From the start of May to the start of this series, the Angels' offense led the Majors in batting average and slugging percentage, was tied for first in runs and ranked second in on-base percentage. So the fact they've scored a combined three runs through the first six innings against three rookie starting pitchers, and have combined to score seven total in 27 innings of this series, is some cruel irony.

On Wednesday night, A.J. Griffin, a rookie they had never even seen before, hurled eight scoreless innings to move to 6-0 with a 1.94 ERA 11 starts into his Major League career.

"They're a very good ballclub, but so are we, full of timely hitting and good pitching," said A's catcher Derek Norris, whose club has won six straight since getting swept by the Angels and is only three back of the Rangers in the AL West. "I feel like any time you put out a good pitching staff, good pitching beats good hitting. You see that in the playoffs every year. I feel like, with our pitching staff, we can compete against any lineup, and we've proven that so far."

Two nights after Jarrod Parker pitched seven innings of one-run, three-hit ball, and one night after Dan Straily gave up only three runs in 6 2/3 innings, Griffin scattered six hits, walked none and struck out six.

Ervin Santana gave up two runs (one earned) in six innings to give him a 3.10 ERA since the start of August, the A's scoring only on a two-out error by shortstop Erick Aybar in the first and a homer by Yoenis Cespedes in the sixth, the Major League-leading 35th Santana has allowed this season.

But one night after going 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position and blowing two opportunities with runners on the corners and none out, one of which came while down a run in the bottom of the ninth, the Angels' offense coughed up what little opportunities they had against Griffin.

With Chris Iannetta on first and one out in the second, Mike Trout singled up the middle, but Iannetta was thrown out trying to reach third base. With runners on the corners and one out in the fourth, Aybar popped out and Vernon Wells flied out to left field. That began a stretch of nine straight retired by Griffin.

"We're getting opportunities," Wells said. "For a while there, we were taking advantage of them -- coming up with key hits, and in situations where we had easy RBI situations, we were producing. We just have to get back to that and we'll put ourselves back in the position we need to be in."

With Garrett Richards, Jordan Walden and Nick Maronde all unavailable, Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins already having been used, and Ernesto Frieri being saved for a closing situation, Scioscia trotted out Jason Isringhausen in a two-run game in the eighth and the A's scored two, all but assuring themselves another victory considering the state of their pitching and the woes of the opposing lineup.

The Angels' offense has been a constant for a solid four months, thriving even amid the head-scratching struggles of their star-studded rotation. But now, as the Angels have received seven quality starts in their last eight games, it's the offense that's betraying them.

So is the calendar.

"We can't concentrate on that," Pujols said of the regular-season finale being three weeks away. "We have to concentrate on just coming out here, trying to win a game tomorrow, then going to Kansas City and trying to win a series. We can't focus on the things we can't control. We have to focus on the things we can control, which is playing well and trying to win."

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