AS THE DOG DAYS NEAR, IT’S GETTING HOT IN THE AL WEST
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:
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.
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.
Buck, two experienced outfielders with
some offensive clout, are progressing quite nicely in their rehab assignments with
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.
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.