The Oakland Athletics are still in good shape in the wild-card race, but they're running out of time to win an AL West division they once controlled.
After the stagnant offense that's led to their slump returned in their latest loss, the A's hope a three-game home series against the Houston Astros that begins Friday night will allow them to start a push to retake the division lead.Oakland (79-60) holds the first wild-card spot, but the A's would certainly like more than a one-game playoff in the first round of the postseason -- especially after leading the West by four games as recently as Aug. 10.Their poor play continued Wednesday in a 2-1 home loss to Seattle, the club's sixth defeat in seven games and 16th in 23 -- a stretch that has allowed Los Angeles to surge past them.Oakland, which had scored 11 runs in the previous two contests, managed one or none for the fourth time in six. Jon Lester, acquired from Boston for slugger Yoenis Cespedes on July 31, threw eight innings of two-run ball, but the A's have provided him with four runs of support in his last four outings."Guys go out there and compete, guys have good at-bats. We're competing on the mound. We're in just about every game. There's nothing more you can really ask for," said Lester, who's 0-3 despite a 2.67 ERA in those four starts after being outpitched by Felix Hernandez."Sometimes you just get beat and the ball doesn't fall your way."Oakland is still among the major league leaders with 650 runs despite the recent lack of production, but Cespedes' absence apparently is starting to be felt as the calendar has turned to September.Adam Dunn hit his second home run in three games Wednesday since being acquired from the White Sox, but that was one of three hits for Oakland.The A's will continue to rely on their pitching as they wait for the lineup to get going again, sending Jeff Samardzija (4-4, 3.57 ERA) to the mound Friday. The right-hander suffered the same fate as Lester his last time out Saturday, throwing an eight-inning complete game and giving up one earned run but losing 2-0 to the Angels.Samardzija, who's given up three earned runs in 16 innings over his last two starts, has faced Houston three times this season and is 2-0 with a 2.78 ERA. He beat the Astros 8-2 on Aug. 25, allowing two runs and striking out 10 in eight innings, and has gone 4-1 with a 2.74 ERA in six career starts against them.One Astros player that hasn't had a problem against Samardzija is Chris Carter, who's 5 for 12 with two homers and two doubles in the matchup. Carter, 4 for 13 with three home runs and six RBIs as Oakland took two of three in the August series, went 3 for 4 with two homers in a 4-1 victory over the Angels on Wednesday.The Astros (61-79) helped the A's by sweeping that two-game set, but Houston could return the favor to Los Angeles as it's won a season high-tying four in a row."It's fun to watch right now," closer Chad Qualls told MLB's official website. "These kids are getting a valuable learning experience, and it can only get better for the future."Houston's Brett Oberholtzer (4-10, 4.39) was pounded for seven runs in 4 1/3 innings his last time out, a 13-6 loss to Texas on Friday. The left-hander has posted a 7.71 ERA in his last three starts.Center fielder Coco Crisp could return to the Athletics' lineup Friday.