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BAL@TOR: Saunders shuts out Blue Jays over 6 1/3

Few would have expected the mid-September series between the Athletics and Orioles to hold any playoff implications for either team.

As it turns out, however, this weekend's three-game set in Oakland is a pivotal series for both clubs as they look to continue improving their playoff positioning. Both clubs are coming off impressive series against fellow contenders that opened the gap in the Wild Card chase and have both teams in contention in their respective divisions.

The Wild Card-leading Athletics dropped Thursday's series finale after taking the first three games from the Angels but have won six of their last seven to climb within 3 1/2 games of the Rangers in the American League West.

Baltimore has been just as hot, coming off a sweep of the Rays that has the Orioles holding a half-game lead in the AL East going into the Yankees' Wednesday night tilt with the Red Sox. On Friday, the Orioles will turn to newcomer Joe Saunders, who has won back-to-back starts after a disastrous debut with the club on Aug. 29.

"It's neat because almost daily you can kind of sense and feel the excitement growing a little bit," Orioles outfielder Nate McLouth said about the team's continued success.

That's understandable, considering almost nobody predicted the Orioles would still be threatening for a playoff spot, let alone the division title. The same holds true for the A's, who have won 15 of their last 19 games, including the three straight against the rival Angels.

"I think any time you're playing a team that's in the race here at this point, there's some intrigue," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "And there's a different dynamic with the second Wild Card. There are a lot of teams that are involved."

The A's will call on left-hander Tommy Milone to keep the ball rolling in Friday's series opener with the O's. Milone is 3-1 in his last four starts with a miniscule 1.35 ERA in those three victories.

"Good pitching beats good hitting," said A's catcher Derek Norris. "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."

Baltimore: Wieters preparing for heavy workload, first child
Orioles manager Buck Showalter gave catcher Matt Wieters the day off in Thursday's matinee series finale to help the backstop prepare for a heavy upcoming workload.

That is unless, of course, his wife gives birth to their first child. Wieters' wife is on the verge of giving birth to their child, at which point Showalter said Wieters will fly home and Taylor Teagarden will take over behind the plate.

The plan for now, though, is for Wieters -- who struck out as a pinch-hitter in the 13th inning Thursday -- to absorb the bulk of the catching duties.

"Matt needs a day [off]," Showalter said before Thursday's game. "He might catch eight out of the next nine games."

Athletics: Comfortable on the road
Though the A's will return home to face the Orioles this weekend, this marks the only home series for Oakland from Sept. 7-27.

The club is in the midst of a stretch in which it plays 17 of 20 games on the road. Fortunately for the A's, they're 6-1 so far in that span and had won 12 straight on the road before Thursday's loss, tying the 1971 Athletics' record for most consecutive road victories since the team moved to Oakland.

"We hope to get a good response," Melvin said. "I feel like every series has been meaningful. Every game is meaningful now. We do have a lot of games on the road, so it'll be nice to be home, albeit a few days, and then come back and finish at home."

Overall, the A's are 42-30 at home this season and 40-31 on the road.

• Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes left Thursday's finale against the Angels with a sprained right wrist.

The A's slugger suffered the injury while sliding into second base, but it was not immediately known how much time he would miss.

Cespedes is hitting .287 with 18 home runs and 68 RBIs in his rookie season.

Worth noting
• The last time both the A's and Orioles qualified for the postseason in the same year was in 1974 when Oakland defeated Baltimore in the AL Championship Series en route to a World Series title.

• Saunders is 13-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 19 careers starts against the A's, including 6-1 with a 2.47 ERA in Oakland.

• Milone has never faced anyone currently on the Orioles' active roster.

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