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.