Two shutouts and a third quality start highlighted the Angels' three-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics, which Joel Pineiro capped by throwing a four-hitter in a 4-0 victory Sunday.
Are the Angels, who moved to within 2 1/2 games of the Texas Rangers in the American League West, finally hitting their stride after struggling to their worst 36-game start in 20 years? Or did they just catch the A's at the right time?
There is evidence on both sides.
Pineiro was brilliant Sunday, needing only 98 pitches to throw the sixth complete game of his career. The sinker-ball specialist induced 15 ground-ball outs, struck out five and walked one.
Since a two-start stretch in late April, when he was rocked for 15 earned runs and 21 hits in 9 1/3 innings by the Yankees and Tigers, Pineiro has allowed two earned runs and 17 hits in 21 1/3 innings of three starts.
"I think I got away from my game plan," Pineiro said. "I wanted to out-think those teams and went to a different style of pitching. Those are good offensive clubs, and you can't make mistakes, but I tried to do too much instead of trusting my stuff."
The Angels backed Pineiro with two superb defensive plays Sunday, left fielder Michael Ryan making a sliding catch in foul territory of Ryan Sweeney's first-inning fly ball and shortstop Erick Aybar making a diving, back-hand stop of Kevin Kouzmanoff's one-hop smash and throwing to first for the out in the second.
Second baseman Howie Kendrick, who had three hits, also made a nice play on Eric Chavez's grounder up the middle in the fifth.
Though the Angels didn't pound the ball as they did in Saturday night's 12-3 victory, they got clutch hits from Bobby Abreu, who hit a two-out, two-run homer in the sixth, and Kendrick, who had a two-out, RBI single in the eighth.
But it was starting pitching that set the tone for the series and virtually eliminated the Angels' erratic bullpen from the equation.
Joe Saunders threw a four-hit shutout Friday night, giving the Angels two shutouts in a three-game series for the first time since Paul Byrd and Jarrod Washburn accomplished the feat July 1 and 3, 2005, at Kansas City.
Ervin Santana allowed one earned run in six innings Saturday night, and Pineiro improved to 3-4 with Sunday's gem, which took only 2 hours 6 minutes to complete.
Angels starters have a 3.26 ERA with 10 quality starts in 15 games this month.
"We're only going to go as far as our starting pitchers perform, and if this weekend is any indication, we're starting to make some strides forward," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "What Joe, Ervin and Joel did gives us a lot of confidence that the depth of our rotation will play out. And we need it."
The Angels' timing is good. Their first home sweep of the A's since 2003 kicked off a stretch in which they are playing 15 of 24 games against division foes.
"Definitely, I think so," Pineiro said, when asked if the sweep could shake the Angels from their funk. "These games in the division are tough. It's going to be close all year."
The A's did not play well this weekend. Jack Cust dropped a routine fly ball in left field Saturday, and center fielder Eric Patterson misplayed Torii Hunter's second-inning fly ball Sunday into a double, which cost a run.
Oakland also played without injured second baseman Mark Ellis and center fielder Coco Crisp, and catcher Kurt Suzuki missed the first two games.
"I would think," A's designated hitter Eric Chavez said, "that any team would have rebounded well [against us] this weekend."
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