Weaver pitches like an ace, but can he win the Cy Young?

Jered Weaver returned to the rotation after skipping a start and looked as good as ever Thursday. Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Jered Weaver has been with the Los Angeles Angels long enough to know this isn't where they want to be this time of year. Chasing, pressing, scratching and clawing their way into a playoff spot, rather than lining things up for a deep playoff run.

He was a young pup back in the days when the Angels were the kings of the American League West. John Lackey was the staff ace then, and man, doesn't that feel like a long time ago?

Weaver is indisputably the ace of the staff now. The guy the team turns to when it absolutely, positively, needs to win a game. And a moment like that arrived Thursday afternoon with the Oakland Athletics on the verge of their first four-game sweep of the Angels since 2001.

Had the Angels been where they want to be this time of year, where their payroll and the talent on their roster projected them to be, Weaver might have been able to rest his tired right arm another week or two.

But the Angels don't have that luxury now. Not when they're still on the outside of the AL wild-card race looking in with just 19 games to go.

So Weaver did what an ace does, coming back to strike out nine and allow just two hits in a walk over seven dominant innings against the previously sizzling A's in a 6-0 win that added fresh kindling to the Angels' flickering playoff chances.

Weaver did his part Thursday, stepping up with a dominant performance in a game the Angels absolutely had to have.

"I wanted to set the tone," he said. "We obviously didn't want to get swept. And the first three games of this series obviously didn't go the way we'd like them to. These guys are playing real good baseball. You can't take them lightly. They're playing the game hard. They're battling just like we're trying to."

While the score looks like a blowout, it was far from it. Weaver and Oakland's Brett Anderson were locked into a classic pitcher's duel through six scoreless innings. Things only loosened up in the bottom of the seventh when Angels outfielder Torii Hunter slammed a solo home run that seemed to open the flood gates as the Angels batted around to score six runs and chase Anderson in the process.

Having shut down the A's almost completely, Weaver left after throwing 94 pitches in seven innings.

It was what an ace does.

The question is whether it's what a Cy Young winner does.

Weaver has been in the American League Cy Young conversation for a the last three years, finishing fifth behind Felix Hernandez in 2010 despite leading the AL with 233 strikeouts, and second to Justin Verlander last year. This year his resume is equally Cy-worthy, but his candidacy still seems to the kind of sizzle that wins awards like this.

Thursday's win moved him to 17-4 on the season (first in the AL) and lowered his ERA to 2.74 (third-AL) and WHIP to 1.00 (first-AL). Thanks to a stint on the disabled list because of a bad back, Weaver's strikeout total (130) is a little off from his usual pace, but he continues to have the lowest opponent's batting average (.211) and OPS (.593) in the AL.

All great numbers. But probably all for naught if the Angels fail to make the playoffs.

"He's pitched well enough to be the Cy Young," Hunter said. "But he's just got to keep going out there and lead us to the promised land and everything will be fine."

In other words: No playoffs, probably no Cy.

While the Cy Young has been won by players on losing teams in recent years -- Zack Greinke in 2009, Hernandez in 2010 and the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw in 2011 -- this year's race in the AL isn't shaping up that way.

Four of the leading candidates, Weaver, Verlander, the Chicago White Sox's Chris Sale and Tampa Bay's David Price, are all in the thick of playoff races. Hernandez isn't vying for the playoffs, but he's Felix Hernandez so he's always still in a Cy Young conversation.

Unless King Felix throws another perfect game, though, you have to think it'll come down to one of those four guys and be determined in large part by whether they can lead their teams to the playoffs.

"I think it's too early to say," said Greinke, who won the 2009 AL Cy Young as a member of the Kansas City Royals. "There's still another four starts left. A lot can happen."

A lot can happen for each of those pitchers and a lot can happen in the AL playoff races.

"It'll probably hinge on how [Weaver] finishes down the stretch," Scioscia said. "Weave would pitch until his arm fell off, but I think he realized that his stuff had [fallen off] ... it was really affecting what he needed to do to compete on the mound.

"But that looked like the Weave we know out there this afternoon."