July 2010

AS THE DOG DAYS NEAR, IT’S GETTING HOT IN THE AL WEST

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As I write this blog in
flight towards our Texas destination, it’s
business as usual for the Oakland
A’s.  We’re starting to enter those
fabled “dog days” of a baseball pennant race, when temperatures – and tempers – can start to get real hot.   Whether it is through player trades or a
heightened sense of urgency, late July and August tend to be the time of
separation when teams reveal whether they’re contenders or merely
pretenders.  For our upstart A’s, who are
tied for second, 7½ games behind the AL West leading Rangers, and two games
above the .500 mark (50-48), there is no magic formula to stay in
contention.  It’s all about grinding
through the process. 

 

Down the aisle in the
coaching section of the aircraft, I can see
Bob Geren scouring over charts and statistics as he tries to
find key matchups and indicators that might lead his club to a successful
series in Arlington.  The same process is taking place with bench
coach Tye Waller, pitching coach Curt Young
and hitting coach Jim Skaalen, as well as the other coaches, who are all tirelessly
reviewing game DVDs on their laptops or 
reading various scouting reports. 
They know this six-game road trip to the home parks of two divisional
leaders will be an even stiffer test than the stretch of games they just played
and passed with flying colors.

 

Of course, Texas isn’t the only torrid team in the
division.  Our A’s are charging fast,
having gone 9-2 in their last 11 games and 16-8 over their last 24 while winning
consecutive series over the Angels, Royals, Red Sox and White Sox.  Had it not been for Texas’
own streak, Oakland
could be much closer to the AL West lead entering this big series.  However, the A’s recent surge places them
within striking range, which for most fans, is really what baseball is all
about.  And despite
Ben Sheets being shelved with a swollen elbow, things are
looking up in A’s Land. 

 

First of all, nothing builds
confidence in a young team like winning games. 
So the past three weeks have done immeasurable good.  And as we head into the final two months of
the regular season, four things, in addition to some other positive signs, suggest
we might just hang around long enough to make it interesting in September:

 

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1) Our starting rotation may be ready to rock and roll.   The emergence of Vin Mazzaro (4-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his last five starts) now
positions us with five formidable starters. 
He joins All-Star
Trevor Cahill
(9-4, 3.15) as comprising one of the best young right-handed tandems in
baseball.  And with
Brett Anderson primed to come off the disabled list in Chicago this weekend, we can offer a southpaw trio of Gio Gonzalez (9-6, 3.75), Dallas Braden
(5-7, 3.76) and Anderson
(2-1, 2.35) that is uniquely talented.  This
young staff is maturing at a rapid pace, working deeper and deeper into the
game.  It’s no longer about the future
for these dynamic arms.  They can match
up with the best right now.  In fact, I
couldn’t help but notice the probable starting matchups this week in Texas.  The A’s will see
Cliff Lee (9-4), Colby Lewis
(9-6) and
C.J. Wilson (9-5) for the
Rangers.  They’ve combined for a 27-15
record this season.  The A’s will counter
with Gio, Trevor and Vinnie.  Their
combined mark to date:  24-12. 

 

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2) The middle of the order is heating up at the right time.  As A’s
fans know, our lineup seemed to lack any discernible punch for the first half
of the season.  However, if the past
couple weeks are any indication, maybe the power outage is over.  It starts with
Jack Cust, who seems to have found his old groove at the
plate.  Beyond putting the ball in play
more often, he’s starting to launch some of those patented home runs of yore
(six bombs in the last 10 games).  His
new-found stroke only helps every hitter around him, as evidenced by
Kurt Suzuki – he of the new four-year contract – who is batting .412
with nine runs in his last nine games, and
Kevin Kouzmanoff, who like Zuk, is a streaky hitter who seems on
the verge of another heat wave.  This is
good news for Oakland
fans, who know that their A’s are almost unbeatable when they score at least
four runs in a game (actually they’re 43-10). 

 

3) Speed and defense is becoming an A’s trademark.  For
those of you who were out at the Coliseum last week, you saw a scrappy team
that found ways to win beyond hitting and pitching.  Including our three-steal game Sunday, the
A’s have now stolen 16 bases since the All-Star Break, which is most in the
majors during that period.  And it’s not
just
Coco and Rajai.  Matt Carson, Gabe Gross, Suzuki…everybody is getting in the act.  A somewhat overlooked byproduct of our stolen
bases is this:  just the threat of
stealing can unnerve a pitcher, which can result in (a) frequent 2-0 counts to
the hitter at the plate, (b) two or three MPHs less on fastballs when the
pitcher must throw out of the stretch, and (c) occasional throwing errors to
first base in an attempt to keep A’s runners close (i.e.,
Erick Threets’ pickoff attempt of Crisp that resulted in Coco racing
around the diamond to score a vital run Sunday).

 

4) Reinforcements are on the way. 
 Connor Jackson
and
Travis
Buck
, two experienced outfielders with
some offensive clout, are progressing quite nicely in their rehab assignments with
Sacramento and
could be welcome reinforcements as we head into August.  And, of course, the much-awaited arrival of
twin-tower sluggers
Michael Taylor and Chris Carter may actually materialize at some point, most likely
during September call-ups. All these added parts to the mix can only give Geren
more options and added punch down the stretch.

 

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Whether any of these signs
lead to an improbable run into true playoff contention remains to be seen.  But for a moment, why not just close your
eyes and dream.  In fact, dream big.  Crazier
things have happened.  Back in 2002, we
won 20 games in a row.  Now,
Brad Pitt is playing Billy Beane in the movie, Moneyball
and they’re filming that 20th win game right now at the
Coliseum.  Maybe anything is possible. 

 

FOR OUR YOUNG A’S, LEARNING TO WIN IS A PROCESS

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Much has been made about our
club’s record against bad teams vs. good teams this season.  Yes, as one of our beat writers mentioned in
today’s paper, we enter tonight’s game against Boston with a 24-10 record against opponents with
losing marks, compared to 22-36 vs. clubs with winning records.  In my past years in the business, I have
heard this refrain many times before.  To
some, it’s as though our overall record doesn’t really count.  Well, the last I checked,
the Team Standings section list teams in the order of winning percentage.  Period.  There is no column that says “victories over marshmallow
teams.” For what it’s worth, I’ve seen teams advance to the playoffs because they beat the team they were
supposed to.  It’s actually part of the
formula of becoming a winner. 

 

In fact, I think it’s quite
common that a team that is learning how to win first makes the postseason by
simply winning a high percentage of the games against sub .500 opponents.  And once they’ve done that, the next goal is
to hold their own against the league’s best teams.  It’s the same thing about home vs. road
record.   Teams that learn how to win,
learn how to win consistently at home.   Our
A’s are 26-20 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum this year, while 20-26 on
the road.  If we can continue to fashion
wins at home, then become more competitive on foreign soil, we’ll have
concocted the recipe for reaching the playoffs.

 

It may not sound like much,
but the Athletics have posted a 90-90 record over their last 180 games dating
back to last season.  This may be a half
full vs. half empty glass argument, but for me, this is a significant sample
size that represents progress.  Not only
have we played .500 baseball for longer than
a full season, we have done it with one of the youngest rosters in Major League
Baseball–a group of young players who are getting better every day.  The next step is to start posting a winning record, and to do that, we need
to start claiming more games against baseball’s elite.  Riding a five-game winning streak, we start a
six-game homestand against the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.  Sheets vs. Dice K at 7:05 tonight in a pretty
good matchup.  Could there be a better
time to take the next step?

IF YOU’RE A BASEBALL FAN, HOW CAN YOU NOT LIKE ADAM ROSALES?

Despite the prevalence of
red, while and blue over the holiday weekend, my

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focus today is on one player’s
green socks, worn the old school way with the bottom of his gray pants meeting
them just below the knee.   Of course,
the player is
Adam Rosales, the most “baseball
player” of baseball players I know.   To me, it makes perfect sense that our utility
man extraordinaire was in the starting lineup on the 4th of July.  Only more appropriate would have been if he
was starting on the day Abner Doubleday invented our national pastime.  Hot dogs, apple pie and Adam Rosales.  What’s more
American?

 

On this sunny day on the
banks of Lake Erie, Rosales had added incentive
to play well.  His girlfriend, parents
and family live in the area, and Adam wants to make them proud.  And as usual, he also wants to help Oakland win a ball
game.  Giving
Kevin Kouzmanoff a well-deserved rest at third base, Rosie seamlessly
fills in. After popping up to shortstop in the second inning, he laces a single
to left field to lead off the fifth. 
There’s hope he might lengthen the A’s 2-1 edge, but the inning ends on
a double play. 

 

Then in the seventh, Rosales
leads off again, and this time he decides to take things into his own
hands.  He barrels up on a 3-1
Fausto Carmona delivery and the ball soars high above the left
field fence into a wide concourse beyond, giving
Vin Mazzaro and the Athletics’ a pivotal two-run lead.  Of course, all the media in the Progressive
Field press box are thoroughly entertained by Rosales’ patented sprint around
the bases.  My colleague
Susan Slusser, the veteran beat writer of the San Francisco Chronicle, and I notice that Adam’s home run jaunt is
slightly slower than usual.  He’s not dogging it per se, he’s just not setting
a land speed record as usual.  We
speculate he might be slowing down a tad so his girlfriend and her family have
more “Photo Op” time.

 

Our Rosie, however, is a
full service Rosie.   He’s far from
through leaving his fingerprints on this 3-1 victory.  After his solo shot, he returns to the field
in the bottom of the seventh and promptly robs Anderson Hernandez by leaping high
to snare a sure two-out double down the third base line.  And then to provide the game’s final
exclamation point on victory, the A’s superman–I mean, utiltyman–bails closer
Andrew Bailey out of a potential ninth-inning jam by initiating a
game ending around-the-horn double play. 
Typical Rosales.

 

So, as we approach the 2010
All-Star Game in Anaheim,
I’ve got a suggestion for a new Major League promotion that would be a
guaranteed hit.  As baseball continues to
expand and refine All-Star team rosters each season, my question is this:  why not include a special fan voting category
for one utility player for each team in the future?  How much fun would that be?  Real baseball fans know that a great utility
man is a key ingredient to a winning team. 
And the really good ones fit Rosales’ profile:  Great hustler.  Unselfish. 
Skilled at many positions.  Does
all the little things well.  Fan
favorite.  Really, they’re usually the
underdog on a team.  And we all know, America
loves an underdog.  This brings us back to my first paragraph.  If anyone should have been playing on the 4th
of July, it should be Adam Rosales, noted underdog utiltyman and opponent
killer. 

CAHILL, ANDERSON OFFER TWO TALES OF BASEBALL’S ALWAYS UNPREDICTABLE JOURNEY

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Ah, to be so young and
talented.  As I watched cherub-like
Trevor Cahill tower over a group of reporters last night in the
visitor’s clubhouse at Camden Yards after his four-hit masterpiece, it all
seemed so routine for the 22-year-old ace of the A’s 2010 staff.  After polishing off the Orioles, he’s 8-2
with a 2.74 ERA, riding a personal seven-game winning streak, and making a
pretty compelling case for All-Star consideration.  We’ll know if he made the team Sunday at 9
a.m. PDT when Major League Baseball announces the teams.

 

Yet, when I look back to spring
training, nothing seemed routine for the pitcher his teammates good-naturedly
call “Teradactyl” for his hulking, dinosaur-like physique.    Despite leading last year’s club in starts
and innings pitched as a rookie, Trevor was in a battle just to stay in the
rotation.  With the offseason signings of
former All-Stars
Ben Sheets and Justin Duchscherer, the top two spots in the starting five were pretty
much preordained.  Then add lefthanders
Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson,
both poised for breakout 2010 campaigns, and by midway through our Phoenix camp
it was clear the rotation’s fifth spot would come down to either fast-emerging
southpaw
Gio Gonzalez or Cahill.  While Gio had been our most impressive
starter in camp, Cahill had a rather choppy spring.  In fact, he seemed to fade a bit as decision
time neared for
Billy Beane and David Forst.  And for good reason, as we learned during the
Bay Bridge exhibition series that the big righthander was suffering from a
stress fracture of left scapula (near the front of the left shoulder). 

 

I’ll never forget the scene
in the Coliseum clubhouse the day we announced our final 25-man roster for the
season.  Cahill and Anderson, who seemed
joined at the hip as rookie buddies and roommates last year, were headed
different directions.  Anderson
was penciled in to start the final game of the opening Seattle series.  Cahill, meanwhile, was headed for the 15-day
Disabled List for the first time of his young career.  It was a poignant scene in the clubhouse, as
Cahill and Anderson said their goodbyes. 
There was almost disbelief between them. 
This was supposed to be Year 2 of the Young Phenoms, starring at a Major
League ballpark near you.  I’m sure they
just assumed that was the way it was meant
to be.

 

As the season started, Trevor
rested his unusual injury, then was activated and pitched for Triple-A
Sacramento until the end of April.  During
that month in the minors, Cahill no doubt did some soul searching.  Meanwhile, the other half of Oakland’s extraordinary
22-year-old tandem was flourishing.  Anderson burst out of the gates with back-to-back
scoreless gems against Seattle
to christen the season, allowing only nine hits over 12 innings. But as April
began to wane, the fortunes of Oakland’s
pitching future changed
dramatically.  Three days after mowing
down Cleveland over six innings in a one-run,
three-hit performance, Anderson–and
his 2-1 record and 2.35 ERA–was placed on the 15-day DL with a sore elbow and
forearm on April 27. 

 

Ironically, his baseball soul
mate, Cahill, was recalled and flown to Toronto
three days later on April 30 for his first start of the season.  He flopped badly.  By the time Trevor was lifted after five
innings, he had been carved up for eight runs, including three Blue Jays home
runs.  Auspicious debuts, this was not.  However, before long, Cahill returned to
become the pitcher that showed flashes of greatness last year.  In fact, since that early pratfall across the
border, he’s almost made a mockery of big league hitters, posting an 8-1 record
and 2.22 ERA, parceling out only 47 hits in his last 77.0 innings of work.

 

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So as A’s fans, I suspect
your next question is, “When do Trevor and Brett reunite?”  While it’s been a long path for Anderson in his rehab
process, the good news is we hear he threw 40 pitches in a bullpen session
earlier this week and all went well.  His
next session may even involve hitters. 
If things progress according to plan, the A’s promising lefty-right
combo may be back intact soon after the All-Star Break.  In the meantime, Cahill carries the banner
with an uncommon panache for his young age. 
Enjoy every minute, because it sure seems like Trevor is and of course,
he and Anderson
both realize baseball is anything but routine. 
Adversity, they know from personal experience, can always be just around
the corner.

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