(Sports Network) - While the Boston Red Sox continue to lose ground in the American League playoff chase, the Oakland Athletics are doing their best to stay in the hunt.
The resurgent Athletics try to extend their season-best winning streak to six games when they return to the Oakland Coliseum tonight to begin a three-game series with a slumping Red Sox squad that continues to be beset by injuries.
After winning its final two contests prior to the All-Star break, Oakland opened up the second half with a three-game road sweep of the Kansas City Royals capped by Sunday's 9-6 triumph. The five straight victories have moved the Athletics back to .500 for the season and kept them within striking distance in the AL's West Division, where the club presently trails first- place Texas by seven games.
Oakland received both good hitting and pitching in Sunday's finale, as Adam Rosales, Jack Cust and Kevin Kouzmanoff all homered to help back a career-high 7 2/3 innings out of young starter Vin Mazzaro.
Rosales belted a two-run shot in the fourth inning to give the A's a 2-1 edge and Kouzmanoff had a solo blast as part of a two-RBI afternoon. Cust added a three-run homer in the ninth that later proved to be crucial, as the Royals scored five times in the bottom of the frame in a belated comeback attempt. Oakland, which has gone 12-6 since June 25, has now piled up 40 runs over the course of its win streak.
"As a team I think we all got good pitches to hit in this series and we were fortunate enough to hit them," Kouzmanoff said. "When guys were in scoring position, we took advantage. The opportunities were there to drive guys in."
Mazzaro (5-2) did his part as well, limiting the Royals to one run and striking out five with just one walk in winning his third consecutive decision. Relievers Brad Ziegler and Cedric Bowers weren't as effective, as the pair gave up five runs in the ninth before closer Andrew Bailey came on to get the final out and end Kansas City's threat.
Oakland's red-hot lineup will be taking its swings tonight against Daisuke Matsuzaka in the Boston hurler's first outing after the All-Star break. The Japanese star closed out his first half on a strong note, holding Toronto to two runs over six innings on July 11 to run his season record to 6-3. The win also improved Matsuzaka to 3-1 with a 4.57 earned run average in seven road starts this season.
Matsuzaka also owns a victory over the A's this year, having come out on top in a 6-4 decision at Fenway Park on June 2. The right-hander worked 6 2/3 innings in that game and allowed three runs while striking out seven batters without issuing a walk.
The Tokyo native has made six overall starts against Oakland since entering the majors in 2007 and has gone 3-1 with a 4.18 ERA versus tonight's foe.
The ailing Red Sox will be limping into a 10-game West Coast road trip and enters the trek having lost eight of their past 11 tilts. The swoon has dropped Terry Francona's club to 6 1/2 games behind the rival New York Yankees for first place in the AL East and 3 1/2 back of Tampa Bay for the lead in the league's Wild Card race.
The Red Sox began their post-All Star break schedule by losing three of four to the AL West-leading Rangers over the weekend, including a 4-2 setback on Sunday. Boston mustered just five hits and fanned 14 times against Texas pitching in the finale, with starter C.J. Wilson notching a career-high 10 strikeouts over the first 6 2/3 innings.
"C.J. threw the ball well," said Red Sox starter Jon Lester. "He threw a better game. They got some hits when they needed to."
Lester (11-4) had a six-start home winning streak halted after allowing four runs (three earned) over eight innings, while fellow All-Star Adrian Beltre had an RBI double in a losing cause. Mike Cameron accounted for Boston's only other run with a solo homer in the ninth.
The Red Sox did win two of three games from the A's in a series held at Fenway Park earlier this season, but have lost in five of their past six visits to the Coliseum. However, Boston did prevail in an early June matchup with Ben Sheets, who gets the call for Oakland tonight hoping to build off an excellent last start.
Sheets yielded just two hits and a walk over six shutout innings to best the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on July 10 in one of the oft-injured righty's best showings of the season. The four-time NL All-Star, who missed all of 2009 recovering from elbow surgery, hasn't been real consistent over the course of the year, however, as his 4-8 record and 4.63 ERA will attest.
The 32-year-old has usually pitched well at home, however, having compiled a 4-3 record with a solid 2.93 ERA in 10 starts at the Coliseum. He's pitched at least six innings in nine of those appearances as well.
Sheets surrendered four runs through six innings in a 6-4 loss to the Red Sox on June 2, his first-ever start against Boston.