ANAHEIM -- Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar go together like peanut butter and jelly: smooth, tasty and loaded with nutritional value.
Fixtures with the Angels since 2008 when they encamped in the middle of the infield and made it their own, they've been a team within the team through thick and thin. In the wake of four lean seasons, they're back in the thick of things again, performing at a consistently high level for a team that owns the best record in the Major Leagues at 80-53.
This was how it was from 2007 through '09 when Kendrick and Aybar were kids, and the Angels were rolling through the American League West to three consecutive division titles.
"It feels like it did back when we had Torii [Hunter] and Vladdy [Guerrero], all those guys, and were going to the playoffs every year," Aybar said following Thursday night's 4-3 victory over Oakland in 10 innings, which moved the Angels two games ahead of their northern rivals in the always entertaining AL West.
It was Kendrick delivering the decisive blow, a full-count fly ball deep enough in the right field corner to score Albert Pujols with his sacrifice fly. Ryan Cook made Kendrick work for it, pumping 97 mph gas before the Angels' second baseman got the barrel on his last heater.
"There have been a lot of times I've failed in those situations," Kendrick said. "Having that experience, knowing either you do it or not, you've got to find the peace of mind that, hey, I've got to find something to hit here.
"He threw me a heater, and I was able to drive it. Josh [Hamilton] and Albert [Pujols] did a great job getting on base to give me the opportunity. We know they're a great team. They've been in first place most of the season."
The A's, reigning division champs, are the hunted now with targets on their backs. Their offense has stalled during a 6-11 stretch that makes the absence of Yoenis Cespedes -- shipped to Boston in the Jon Lester deal -- hard to overlook. But they have great starting pitching, a proven bullpen and enough assets to take it the distance.
The Angels, a mystery team coming into this season, have turned the question marks into exclamation points, notably with a bullpen that now rivals the best in the game. The components showed all the right stuff again against the A's, holding them hitless after C.J. Wilson departed having yielded three runs in 5 2/3 innings.
Kevin Jepsen, with his MLB-best 59 consecutive scoreless appearances, delivered again and was eager to talk about the characters in the heart of the infield who have served as the Angels' backbone.
"It's awesome pitching with those guys behind you -- extremely comforting," Jepsen said. "They've been a combo for what, seven years now? That's pretty rare.
"Maybe it's because of the late games on the West Coast or all the stars we've had here, but it doesn't seem like Howie and Erick get the credit they deserve. I'll tell you one thing: when guys come here from other teams and sit in the bullpen with us and watch them play every day, they're amazed by how good they are. They say, `Wow, I didn't realize Aybar was that great, and Howie does it all.'"
Jepsen, Kendrick, Aybar and Jered Weaver are the only players left from those Angels teams that ruled the West three years running.
"We're like brothers, me and Erick," Kendrick said. "We go all the way back to Double-A [Arkansas] together. It seems like we've been together forever. This is where we grew up. We can be ourselves here.
"We never take each other seriously; it's always a joke between us. I can read Erick's mind, and he can read mine. Albert comes in, and he's like another brother. It's great chemistry here. Guys like Albert and [David] Freese have won it all [with the Cardinals], and we've been to the playoffs three straight years. That experience is invaluable."
A sense of humor also helps. Kendrick, in the at-bat preceding the celebration, pounded a foul ball off the ground and directly into his face. He cleared his head and got the job done.
"Maybe it knocked some sense into me," he said, grinning.
Kendrick, who singled twice and walked against Sonny Gray, is having a typically solid season: .281/.337/.370. His sure-handed glove work has complemented Aybar, who has to be in contention for a second Gold Glove at shortstop.
Aybar has a 13-game hitting streak during which he has batted .449. His .282/.323/.386 line is almost identical to his partner's. Both have 56 RBIs. Kendrick has scored 68 runs, Aybar 65. Kendrick has played 130 of 133 games, Aybar 129.
They play in a cast featuring Mike Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, high-powered personalities commanding most of the national media attention. That is of no currency to Kendrick or Aybar.
"You don't need to be in the media to be considered a great player," Kendrick said. "We're having a great time playing in a great place. I think I can speak for Erick -- he's kind of shy with reporters -- when I say the Angels have always treated us well and we're happy to be where we are.
"We're here to play hard, have fun and win games."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.