With a two-game lead in the AL West and 58 games left, I believe the A's sit right now with two clear avenues to winning the division. That's better than one avenue and much better than zero avenues, and it is also no sort of guarantee. Make no mistake: Oakland is in a true dog fight between two teams that rarely lose these days, and the second best team in all of MLB is going to be a wild-card.
I have split the last 58 games into two parts: The next 22 games and then the true "stretch drive" beginning on August 22nd. The stretch drive is not just the last 36 games -- 10 of those 36 games are head-to-head against the Angels.
One avenue for the A's is to expand their lead in the division, between now and August 22nd, to at least 5 games. What this would mean is that the Angels would have to go 7-3 head-to-head in order to make significant inroads. Oakland would pretty much just have to "hold serve" head-to-head and not collapse in its other games.
And they probably wouldn't because when .620 teams are battling it out it's unlikely either team is going to have a stretch of going 3-7, be it head-to-head or in any random 10 day stretch. This is in stark contrast to the second wild-card, where teams barely above .500 are fighting one another -- teams fully capable of going 3-7 any time because they are highly flawed. That is not to say that the A's or Angels couldn't lose 8 of 10, but it is to say that if this is what the Angels have to count on then Oakland is sitting pretty. A 5-game lead by August 22nd would put matters at about that level.
The other avenue the A's have, if they cannot build their lead by August 22nd, is to master the head-to-head matchups. If Oakland wins 6 of 10 then the Angels are going to have to pick up a full 4 games in non head-to-head play. Now that's totally feasible since at the moment there are still 48 of those days left.
But let's face it: both teams are mostly treading water with one another beating up on their opponents, and the Angels' best chance to make up ground is to beat Oakland. If they cannot do that -- if they even lose ground in the head-to-head matchups -- they have lost not only more games in the standings but also a valuable opportunity.
So to me, Oakland has two distinct paths to the AL West: Bolster their lead over the next 22 games or vanquish the Angels head on. Given that the race is so close, why don't I just apply the same logic to the Angels and offer them the same two avenues to win the AL West?
Partly it's that 2 games is a little and it's also a lot. Consider that for the Angels to lead the division by 5 games on August 22nd, they would need to pick up not 3 games in the standings, but 7 games. Going 6-4 head-to-head would tie Oakland, not pad a lead to 4 games. It's a pretty fundamentally different ball of wax.
Oh and you bet that if I'm Bob Melvin, I publicly downplay the importance of the August 22nd-24th series, and the following August 28th-31st series, against the Angels -- but secretly line up Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jeff Samardzija to start games in both series. (Note that this can be accomplished simply by inserting a 6th SP, such as Tommy Milone, to make the start on August 27th. It may not be getting late yet, but it sure as heck ain't getting early.