Haren leads Halos to crucial sweep of A's

Haren leads Halos to crucial sweep of A's

Haren leads Halos to crucial sweep of A's
OAKLAND -- It's a much easier analysis to make in hindsight, of course, but Dan Haren noticed something different about this Angels team during their three-day stay in this city, where they faced an Athletics team that entered the week red hot and in prime playoff position.

He noticed it as soon as their plane touched down from Seattle on Sunday night, this sense of urgency that comes when the calendar reaches this stage and a postseason absence becomes this real.

By late Wednesday afternoon, as hip-hop blared from iPod speakers in the visiting clubhouse at Oakland Coliseum, he basked in the way it manifested itself in a three-game sweep over an A's team that had previously won nine straight.

"We needed it bad," Haren said after a series-clinching 7-1 victory he was very much a part of with another solid start. "Coming in from Seattle, we knew we had to get all three. Our will to win in these last three games has been just different than it's been the rest of the year.

"We knew we had business to take care of here, to get back in it."

The Angels aren't all the way back in it, but with 25 games left in their season, they're still very much alive. They've now won eight of their past nine games, and 12 of their past 15, to counteract a rough second-half start and move to a season-best 11 games above .500. They start a seven-game homestand against the Tigers and A's at 2 1/2 games back of the second American League Wild Card spot.

"When you start getting into the 20s of games left, there's just a limited amount of games you can lose," Haren said. "There's a different sense of urgency when the games start dwindling, and we have ground to gain. The sense of urgency has taken a tick up."

"We want it," veteran outfielder Torii Hunter added. "We know we have a pretty good ballclub, a really good ballclub, and we want to show it. We're doing it right now."

And they're doing it in every facet.

The offense -- which used a three-run third inning to score first for the 11th time in 12 games, then blew the game open with a four-run ninth -- owns the Major League's best batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and runs per game since the start of June.

But the spark of this recent turnaround has been the pitching staff, which posted a Major League-worst 5.59 ERA over a 42-game stretch that began July 3 -- a stretch in which the Angels went 17-25 -- but has a 2.98 ERA over this surging 15-game span.

In the finale, Haren (six innings of one-run ball) and rookie lefty Nick Maronde (three critical strikeouts) played a pivotal role in a five-hitter. And for the series, the staff limited an A's team that averaged eight runs per game over their nine-game winning streak to five total runs.

"It was a little bit humbling," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "They came in and just beat us, took it to us from the first game on."

"This team is playing to where we had hoped it would, and the primary reason is that our pitching is starting to stabilize," Angels skipper Mike Scioscia said. "That's a critical part of what we need to do."

The Halos' victory was somewhat overshadowed by a scary incident in the top of the fourth, when a hard line drive off the bat of Erick Aybar struck A's starter Brandon McCarthy directly above his right ear. McCarthy was visibly shaken up by the play and immediately came out of the game, but he walked out on his own power and the team said he didn't lose consciousness. He was taken to a local hospital for precautionary reasons.

Aybar, noticeably distraught over what happened, got McCarthy's phone number and was expecting to call him later.

"You feel really bad," he said in Spanish. "He's a good guy. You never want to hit anybody over the head, and he's a good guy. Hopefully everything turns out all right and, God willing, that he gets better soon."

Thanks to a two-out RBI single by Hunter and a two-run single by Howie Kendrick, the Angels took a 3-0 lead off McCarthy in the third.

Haren, coming off a start against the Mariners that was probably his best in three months, scattered three hits, walked three, struck out seven and retired the last seven in order.

He's now 4-2 with a 3.50 ERA since the All-Star break, and has given up one earned run in 13 innings over his past two starts.

"I'm just happy for the team," Haren said. "Sweeping a team like that, and going back home, it feels really good."

Nursing a two-run lead in the seventh, Garrett Richards put two runners on with one out. But rookie lefty Nick Maronde -- on his 23rd birthday, no less -- struck out Coco Crisp and Seth Smith to end the threat, then struck out Reddick to start the eighth inning, giving him a punchout of each of the four batters he's faced since his callup on Friday.

"I'm just going out there trying to throw strikes," said Maronde, used because Scott Downs had pitched in back-to-back games. "They don't really know me, I don't think there's a lot of film on me, so I have the upper hand there."

Kevin Jepsen struck out his two batters to finish up the frame, and the Angels broke it open in the ninth, scoring four runs on a bases-loaded walk by Maicer Izturis, a two-run single by Hunter and a successful double steal, capping the Angels' first sweep in Oakland since 2009.

"I just like the way the whole team is playing," Haren said. "We're really together, everyone's loose. And it'll be a nice ride home."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.