San Francisco Giants

A’s to open key home series against Angels

A’s manager Bob Melvin said Wednesday that when his team plays the Los Angeles Angels this weekend, he expects the games to be “seriously, to an extent, emotional.” But the A’s had already made a stronger statement about their significance the day before, when they announced their starting pitchers for the series.

With two off days this week, the A’s opted to skip struggling Jason Hammel’s turn in the rotation and line up their top three starters – Sonny Gray, Jon Lester and Scott Kazmir – to pitch against the Angels, whom they trail by two games in the American League West entering Friday night’s series opener at the Coliseum.

“You want to make sure,” Melvin said, “you’re putting your best foot forward.”

With less than six weeks left in the regular season, the A’s and Angels appear poised to jockey with each other down the stretch atop the standings. . The A’s held the best record in baseball for nearly two months and stood alone atop the division for 106 consecutive days until last Saturday – when the Angels caught them.

For as well as the A’s have played most of the summer, compiling by far the best run differential (plus-162) in the majors, they were never able to build more than a six-game lead over their division rivals to the south. That lead evaporated amid a 2-8 stretch over their past 10 games.

“They made it clear very early on that they weren’t going away,” said A’s closer Sean Doolittle. “It’s not a situation where it’s a fluke or some magical run they’re on. They’re for real in pretty much every aspect of the game, so in a way, it was something we kind of expected – for them to continue to win ballgames.”

The A’s recent skid has included losing three of four to the A.L. Central-leading Royals in Kansas City and being swept by the over-.500 Braves in Atlanta. The Angels, meanwhile, have played their past 10 games against the Phillies, Rangers and Red Sox, all last-place teams.

Still, several A’s players dismissed the idea that they’ll be hurt by a lack of momentum – or that they might put added pressure on themselves this weekend to avoid falling further behind in the race.

“I think this little slump, it’s come just from us not firing on all cylinders,” said pitcher Jeff Samardzija. “We’ve had good pitching; we’ve had good hitting. We just need to piece them together and have all three facets of the game clicking at the same time.”

The A’s continue to lead the majors in runs but have scored more than three in just three of their last 10 games. That included a five-run output Wednesday against the Mets that was negated in an 8-5 loss by Samardzija’s worst outing since he joined the A’s in July.

Afterward, players in a quiet clubhouse said team morale has not suffered during the A’s most prolonged rut of the season.

“I feel like we’re going to be fine,” third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “This is definitely going to be an important series for us, and (the Angels are) playing well, and there’s a few things that we want to clean up. That being said, we’re looking forward to Friday.”

Even when the A’s were building their midsummer lead, Melvin said, “I never thought it looked like we were running away from the division.

“We’ve seen in years past, we were 13 (games out) in August and ended up coming back. So I don’t buy into that at all, the percentages you see (of the probability to) win the division and all that. It can be swung very quickly in three games.”

For that reason, Melvin said, “There’s going to be that much more importance on each one of these games.” The A’s and Angels meet 10 times down the stretch, including this weekend, with four games in Los Angeles at the end of August and three in Oakland in the A’s penultimate series of the regular season.

“I think it’s probably safe to say the division will be determined by those 10 games,” said Samardzija. “So we’ll take it game to game and see what we can do in this first series and go from there.”

Given the circumstances, and the strength of crowds the A’s have drawn at home for the postseason the past two years, Melvin said he expects “this place will probably be pretty crowded, and there’ll be a lot of excitement to it.”

Players often minimize the importance of games played at this time of year. But Doolittle did not, saying he anticipates there will be a “playoff-type atmosphere” at the Coliseum this weekend.

“I hope for it,” Doolittle said. “I mean, it’s a big series. It’s only August, but they’re a division rival, and they’ve been playing really good baseball over the past couple weeks, and we’ve been struggling.

“If we can get some of that home-field advantage and get the crowd behind us, it could be one of those things where facing a good team like the Angels gives us an opportunity to rise to the occasion, and maybe elevate our game a little bit. And that could be what we need to get things back on track.”