ANAHEIM -- Nine days ago, after dropping two of three at Safeco Field in Seattle, Jered Weaver was asked about the opportunity his club had just missed out on. The Angels' starter talked about how the real opportunity was missed three days earlier, when his team blew a five-run lead with one strike left against the Astros on Sept. 13, but said: "There's still things that can happen if we keep winning."
The Angels have kept on winning since then, and now, after an 8-4 victory over the Mariners on Friday night, they're only a half-game out of the final playoff spot.
In a span of eight games, the Angels have made up three games on the Astros for the second Wild Card spot in the American League. They've won six of them, including three of four in Minnesota, two of three in Houston and the series opener at home against the Mariners, thanks to four first-inning runs and a gritty effort from their starter, Garrett Richards.
"We're starting to become the team that we were in the beginning of the year and the team that we were in the All-Star break when we were in first place," said Richards, his team now one game ahead of the Twins in the Wild Card standings. "Everybody's kind of feeding off each other; we have a good energy going on. We're just trying to win every game; that's all we can do."
The Angels amassed four extra-base hits in the first against fill-in starter Vidal Nuno, tying their season high for an inning. Mike Trout hit a bloop double into shallow right field to score Erick Aybar, and then Albert Pujols blasted a two-run shot into the Mariners' bullpen, his 37th on the year to match his highest total since 2011. Two batters later, David Freese scored C.J. Cron with a line-drive single.
Richards was hit around early, but managed to get through seven innings, giving up only three runs and capturing his career-high 15th win thanks in large part to some added runs. Johnny Giavotella drove in a couple in his first game off the disabled list and Cron gave the Angels a five-run lead with an eighth-inning, two-run homer into the lawn in center field.
"We can only control what we can control, and that's winning ballgames," Trout said. "We've got to take it one game at a time. We've got nine games left, and we've got to try to win all of them."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
'Johnny Drama' returns: Playing in his first game since Aug. 20, after a five-week bout with fourth-nerve palsy, Giavotella made his presence felt. The Angels' spirited second baseman singled past a drawn-in infield in the fourth, extending his team's lead to 5-3, then drove in another run with a line-drive triple to deep center field in the sixth. Giavotella capped it with a belly-flop headfirst slide into third base. Not bad for a guy who was seeing double out of the left corner of his eye until recently and only saw live pitching in three days of Instructional League workouts.
"I love to bring energy, lighting a fire under guys -- I think it's contagious," Giavotella said. "I think the more energized people are, the more that other people tend to follow in those same lines. It was fun to be a part of, I'm glad I got that big hit, and I'm glad we got a win tonight." More >
Cruz climbing the HR charts:Nelson Cruz's solo homer in the first inning moved him into a tie for the Major League lead with Baltimore's Chris Davis with 43. Cruz has a shot at becoming the first player to lead the Majors in homers for two different teams in back-to-back years since Babe Ruth in 1919-20. With the blast -- projected at 428 feet by Statcast™ -- Cruz now ranks seventh on the Mariners' single-season homer list behind five of Ken Griffey Jr.'s seasons and one by Jay Buhner (44 in 1996) with eight games remaining. More >
Stopping the bleeding: After the Angels stormed out of the gates with a four-run first, the Mariners came back strong against Richards in the second inning, drawing back-to-back walks, getting a line-drive RBI single by Logan Morrison and putting themselves in prime position to retake the lead after a wild throw from rookie catcher Carlos Perez. But with runners on second and third and none out, Richards kept the Angels' lead at 4-3 with three straight strikeouts. The 27-year-old right-hander struck out Steve Baron, Ketel Marte and Kyle Seager, all on sliders.
"It's a momentum shifter," Richards said. "When you're in a situation like that, and when you're able to overcome stuff like that, that's something that I feed off of, that's something that I build off of -- not only me, but as as a team. That's a big momentum shifter for us." More >
Planning ahead: Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon pulled Nuno after just 67 pitches and 4 1/3 innings, but it's not because he was displeased with the lefty's effort. Nuno settled in after the four-run first, but McClendon wanted to limit his outing because he might need him to come back for another spot start next Tuesday against the Astros in Seattle in place of James Paxton, who is dealing with a torn fingernail.
"I'm ready whenever," said Nuno. "I've been ready all year. I know the routine and how to get my arm back in shape. It's not hurting."
"I thought we had real good at-bats and got his pitch count up. We had him in trouble all night, we just couldn't get the big hit to put us over the hump." -- McClendon, on Richards
"That's the kind of stuff that pumps everybody up. People feed off that kind of stuff."-- Richards, on Giavotella's head-first slide
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Nuno now has just one win in his last 23 starts dating back to July of last season. Over his past two years with the Yankees, D-backs and Mariners, he's 3-15 with a 4.51 ERA in 36 starts.
In the seventh, Freese became the first Angels third baseman to record 10 doubles in a month since Troy Glaus in May 2001. Since returning from a fractured right index finger in September, Freese is batting .333 (25-for-75)
With 10 games in 10 days to finish off the regular season, and setup man Joe Smith still a longshot to return from a sprained left ankle, Angels manager Mike Scioscia would've loved to get a win without using his two best relievers, Trevor Gott and Huston Street. But with two outs and two on in the eighth, third baseman Kaleb Cowart slipped trying to round a slow roller from Morrison, turning it into an RBI single and cutting the Mariners' deficit to four. That prompted Scioscia to turn to Gott, who eventually stranded the bases loaded by striking out James Jones. Street warmed up twice, but wasn't needed in the ninth.
WHAT'S NEXT Mariners:Felix Hernandez (18-9, 3.54) seeks to equal his career high in wins as he takes on the Angels in a 6:05 p.m. PT game on Saturday. Hernandez came out after 5 2/3 innings in his last start due to stiffness in his elbow, but said he was fine after throwing during the week. He's 8-2, 1.73 ERA in 15 starts vs. the Halos since 2013.
Angels:Andrew Heaney (6-3, 3.30 ERA) will oppose King Felix in the second of a three-game series. The rookie left-hander has given up just two runs in 11 innings over his last two starts, throwing five scoreless against the Astros and six innings of two-run ball against the Twins. Heaney threw seven scoreless innings in his only start against the Mariners this year.