OAKLAND -- Whoever is wearing the proverbial target on their backs may be up for debate, but there's no denying that the A's and Rangers are the two contenders for American League West crown.
"Everything goes through Oakland," Rangers manager Ron Washington said before Monday's series opener between the two teams, to which Oakland skipper Bob Melvin replied, "I'll flip it back."
This much is clear: The Rangers hold a one-game lead over the A's one day into the final month of the season with two three-game series left between the two teams, with the first starting Monday at the Coliseum.
The A's are playing what Melvin called "the best we have in the second half to this point," after a three-game sweep of the Rays at home to grab a 2 1/2-game lead over Tampa Bay for the first Wild Card spot in the American League after a 3-1 series win over the AL Central-leading Tigers in Detroit.
The hot streak comes after a homestand in which the A's went 4-6 against the Astros, Indians and Mariners -- two of whom have losing records -- before it ended on Aug. 21.
"Everything that we did today is what's wrong with us," Melvin said after the final game of the homestand, a 5-3 loss to the Mariners.
Yet since then they've turned things around and are in a position for their second straight division title.
"I think our focus is a little better. Sometimes that goes on and off over the course of a season," Melvin said. "And when I speak like that I talk about us, everybody. Myself included. There are times during the season when you need to address some things and kind of re-energize the focus. That's just how I felt on that day, and the guys have been really consistent since I've been here about their effort level and so forth.
"We didn't have a good homestand and I was a little frustrated. But they played great baseball since."
The A's trailed the Rangers 8-5 in the season series and were 2-4 in Oakland. Yet the A's are batting .273 with 121 runs scored over the last 24 games after hitting .209 with 72 runs scored over the previous 23 contests -- an encouraging sign for sure as they play the last portion of the season.
"We can't really ever get too far ahead of ourselves here," Josh Donaldson said after Sunday's 5-1 win over the Rays. "Just last week people were starting to right us off and now they're jumping back on. Hopefully we can just continue to play good, clean baseball and continue our production."
Jeff Kirshman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.