April 2011

A’s Baseball & Warmer Weather – A Winning Combo!

Bay Area residents, I dare you.  I dare you to find a nicer place to spend three hours soaking up 70-degree weather than at an A’s day game at the Coliseum.  And I also dare you to find a more affordable option on the local sports scene today.  And I dare you to find a more exciting and talented young pitching staff than the 2011 Oakland A’s, which features four early All-Star candidates in their midst.

That said, I hope you take heed and come out to the yard during the next homestand early and often.  Weather prognosticators are expecting high 60’s and low 70’s with plenty of sunshine during the seven-game run against AL divison leaders Texas (Friday-Monday) and Cleveland (Tuesday-Thursday).  Three of the four games vs. Michael Young, Adrian Beltre & Co. will be matinee affairs, while the Indians’ series finale will also be staged under glorious sun!  Really, is there anything much better than day baseball!  Green grass, blue skies and white shoes.  Yes!

And that’s not even considering the great season-long deals that our marketing guru, Jim Leahey, has concocted to provide every-day value to A’s fans.  I mean, virtually every day of the week offers something pretty cool.  There’s free parking on all Chevy Free Parking Tuesdays (except 5/31).  BART $2 Wednesdays mean selected $2 game tickets.  And new this year, 10,000 fans will receive coupons for free hot dogs for Thursday games.  Fridays, beyond being a popular Fireworks Night (2 of the 5 Fireworks games are on Fridays in 2011), may offer Bay Area sports fans the best bargain anywhere–Xfinity Friday Family Packs, whereby a family or group of four can attend a big league baseball game, eat a dinner consisting of a hot dog, bag of peanuts and a soft drink, all for only $50 total!  Try that one on for size at another sports venue in the Bay Area!  And this does not even count the promotional giveaways on most weekends at the Coliseum.  This Saturday will be Rickey Henderson Bobblehead Day, while Sunday is Kids Magnet Set Day.  And don’t forget next Thursday’s special Atleticos T-shirt/Cinco de Mayo giveaway, the final day game of the homestand! So when it comes to value, great team matchups and magnificent weather, I dare you to find a better deal than A’s baseball.  Whether you’re a parent looking for a family outing for your kids, a hardcore baseball fan who wants to see how the A’s will fare against top competition, or just someone looking to “catch some rays” now that our lousy weather is over, look no further than 66th Avenue.  Go A’s!

There Are Wins…And Then There Are TEAM Wins!

You want to know how special yesterday’s win was?  Let me share a telling stat from last year’s team.  When the 2010 A’s trailed in a game after eight innings, their record was 2-68.  That’s right.  Two and 68.  In other words, last year’s team wasn’t exactly The Comeback Kids.  But this season is a new day, or at least early returns suggest it is.

On the heels of Kurt Suzuki’s dramatic game-winning home run in the 10th inning of Monday’s series opener, the A’s did one even better on getaway day in Chicago. Facing what appeared to be an insurmountable 4-1 deficit in the ninth, Conor Jackson, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui—part of the new face of this year’s club—opened the inning with three straight authoritative hits.  Up in the U.S. Cellular Field press box, I was starting to wonder, at least privately, “could this team actually rally and win this thing?”  Matsui’s bullet to right field shaved the deficit to 4-2.  Then Bob Geren, who has been given a roster clearly with more talent and flexibility this year, began to make moves like a manager with more options than previous seasons.  First, he sent Coco Crisp into the game to pinch-run for Godzilla.  Then he pinch-hit Daric Barton for Kevin Kouzmanoff, bringing in a player that banged out four hits the night before to face a right-handed reliever.  Barton walked—not exactly a shocking development—and then Kurt Suzuki worked the count to 2-0, then 3-1 against reliever Matt Thornton with the bases loaded.  At that point, Thornton went country hardball and blew a 96-, then 97-MPH fastball past the A’s catcher for an ill-timed strikeout.  Again, Geren was able to summon another proven bat off the bench, inserting Ryan Sweeney for Andy LaRoche. Ozzie Guillen countered with Tony Peńa out of the pen, and the big right-hander also served up gas which Ryno could not catch up to. But just when A’s fan were about to pack up their scorebooks and turn off Comcast Sports Net or The Wolf, little Cliff Pennington greets Peńa with a laser single up the middle of the diamond to drive in Willingham and Crisp to tie the game.

Geren’s new options continued to unfold in the bottom of the ninth, when he moved Jackson from right field to third base, while leaving Barton (1B) and Sweeney (RF) in the game in their customary positions and actually improving Oakland’s defense at a critical juncture of the game.  After Grant Balfour shredded the Sox’s vaunted sluggers in the ninth—Adam Dunn and Carlos Quentin via the strikeout and Paul Konerko via a harmless foul pop to Suzuki—the A’s new firepower came surging forward again in the top of the 10th.  After Mark Ellis grounded out, Jackson and Willingham drew walks.  Then Crisp and Barton, only inserted into the game the previous inning, came up huge with RBI singles that forged a 7-4 lead.  While Brett Anderson had to settle for a no-decision despite a solid 5.2 innings of work, he was happy to hand the ball to a succession of lock-down relievers—Craig Breslow, Brad Ziegler, Balfour and then closer Brian Fuentes—who delivered 4 1/3 innings of scoreless pitching which paved the way for an improbable win.  When the dust settled, I think I counted at least 12 players who made significant contributions.  It was truly a team win, which of course, are the best kind.  They help form closer bonds between players—especially those new to this team—and suggest the total sum may, indeed, be greater that the individual parts.

So, after a 1-4 start to the season which was undermined by some defensive lapses, your Oakland A’s have gone 5-2 against very legitimate competition.  Geren’s Boys won the last two road series against arguably the top two teams in the AL Central in Chicago and Minnesota, and had it not been for an ill-timed home run off the bat of Yunel Escobar in Toronto, we win all three series on this arduous road trip.  For a new group to face such adversity when they were staring up at a 1-4 start, and then respond with some pressurized victories, it suggests this unit is becoming a real team.  And with that, comes more confidence, a close-knit feeling, and a collective Esprit de corps that may drive this group to greater heights in the weeks and months to come.  Detroit arrives in Oaktown this evening for a four-game series, then Boston for a brief two-game set that ends the home stand.  You may want to come out and see what all the commotion is about.

Role Players Pivotal To A’s Success This Year

My first observation following yesterday’s 2-1 win in Toronto:   Trevor Cahill (left) looks like the same guy who won 18 last year and earned All-Star honors—if not better. His ball still darts downward with a bite almost unfair to hitters.  And this, from a 23-year-old kid who still sports peach fuzz on his cheeks.

It took some courage from Bob Geren to remove him from a 3-hit masterpiece after eight innings and a 105-pitch count, but in the long run, I think they felt it was time for Brian Fuentes to notch his first save.  We don’t make a serious run at the AL West crown unless we’re clicking on all cylinders, and that means Fuentes,   Bailey and Balfour providing the final touches on A’s wins.  Same goes for sitting down David DeJesus in favor of Conor Jackson (left, below) and plugging in Andy LaRoche to rest the ear-infected EllisJackson and LaRoche will play vital roles on this team if we want to join the 90-win echelon of other playoff contenders.  This means specialists and backup players will need to step up and flourish when they’re asked to perform, whether it is an occasional start, a pinch-hitting appearance, or a summon from the bullpen.

The good news is they’re passing the early tests.  After a bout with a finger blister, Fuentes looked like his old self at the Rogers Centre, whipping that cross-body heater that can tie hitters up in knots.  Jackson has been nothing but sensational in his two starts this season.  Not only has he wielded a hot bat, he’s also more than held his own in the field.  His shoestring catch of a sinking liner off the bat of Adam Lind in the sixth inning today may have been even more impactful than his game-deciding RBI single was in the eighth.  And LaRoche, thrust into the unaccustomed role of utilityman, may have emerged as our most consistent hitter in the early season while starting at shortstop, third base and second base in consecutive games.

Yes realists, we are only 2-4 as we enter the frigid confines of Target Field.  But as I mentioned in my previous blog, this is a work in progress.  While expectations are high, and the early season schedule presents challenges, those wearing green and gold uniforms are focusing merely at the task at hand.  With 156 games left to the finish line, there will be many revelations in store as the season unfolds.  Today, the Twins christen their home season.  Brett Anderson will take the mound for the Athletics, aiming to spoil another team’s Opening Day in the same fashion King Felix did in Oakland last week.  As always, time will tell.

A Team In Search of an Identity

Like every Major League Baseball team in April, the Oakland A’s are entering the early stages of finding a team identity as they jet eastward to Toronto.  You can rest assured, error-laced Opening Night and our bullpen struggles last weekend is not a true reflection of this team!  As is customary, Canadian officials will require each of us to present U.S. passports to gain entrance on foreign soil when we land at Pearson International Airport.  However, the collective I.D. of the 2011 A’s will not be printed in a government document.  Instead, it will play out over time this season.  That’s part of the fun of being a fan, because despite what preseason prognosticators might suggest, the true identity—and character—of a team is always determined by the 25 players on the roster.

It’s a process.  On the field, Bob Geren and his staff are focused on meshing diverse talents into a cohesive unit. But,  maybe more importantly, this is the time when  clubhouse chemistry starts to bubble to the surface.  Old friendships are renewed and  new ones take root.  Mr. Willingham, meet Mr. EllisMr. Balfour, want to play  catch? I found last weekend interesting, in  that our two opening losses to Seattle  seemed to create a sense of urgency among the troops—something you wouldn’t expect with 160 games left to play.  Clearly, players shared the same high expectations  that have been tossed around national media circles this spring, and they seemed  determined to right the ship, and right it now.  And no better way than to let the guy in  the next locker know that “I’ve got your back because, hey, we’re teammates and I  care about you.  Let’s go get ‘em!”

Take David DeJesus and Gio Gonzalez, both electric personalities who seem to have become fast friends.  They’ve developed some type of fist-and-body bump routine every time they see each other that’s way more hip than I can personally comprehend.  Let’s just say that former A’s bat boy MC Hammer would be proud.  Back-end reliever Brian Fuentes turned to family—his real one and his new one—to soothe the painful memory of a rocky outing, as he proudly introduced two of his young children to his new teammates in the clubhouse Sunday.  Another scene after Sunday’s 7-1 win was sidelined All-Star closer Andrew Bailey, skipping around like a school boy in the clubhouse, high-fiving Gio and fellow reliever Jerry Blevins for a job well done.  Yet, maybe the most central figure in bringing this club together Sunday was Hideki Matsui, the consummate pro, who’s the team’s closest connection to the Japanese earthquake nightmare.  He was the rallying point for the organization’s efforts to raise money for the Red Cross yesterday (the team generated more than $65,000).  Matsui also gave his country a brief moment to escape their pain and suffering by lining a Doug Fister pitch down the left-field line for a second-inning double which was the 2,500th of his legendary career.  After the game, everyone from Geren to Gonzalez gushed about the A’s new slugger and the historical significance of his amazing milestone.

It’s that respect and true caring for each other that might very well be the trademark of this Oakland club.  Time—and our win-loss record—will tell if these qualities will serve the A’s well.

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