Willingham, Matsui Lead A’s Power Surge
This is how it was supposed to be. The A’s were down 3-1 in the fifth inning yesterday at Tropicana Field and then BOOM. Hideki Matsui smoked a David Price fastball into the right field bleachers and suddenly the two-run deficit evaporated before our very eyes. Then later when the game went into extra innings, Josh Willingham stepped to the plate and smashed a Jake McGee delivery over the left field fence to propel a 5-4, 10-inning win for the never-say-die A’s. After watching the festivities from the press box, I couldn’t help but think this was exactly what Billy Beane envisioned when he acquired both Matsui and Willingham during the off season. In fact, watching yesterday’s offensive fireworks–not to mention the entire lineup’s awakening during the past month–has actually made it even more maddening for A’s fans I suspect. We always knew they had this kind of production in them, as their past seasons suggested it.
Bob Melvin, certainly an experienced hand, made an early commitment to certain veteran players when he assumed the managerial reins at mid-season. And since the All-Star Break, a once moribund lineup has begun to function in exciting, wondrous ways that seemed unfathomable only one month earlier. I mean, really. Would you have predicted that a team that ranked at or near the bottom in batting average, runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage would now be leading the Major Leagues in hitting (.299), on base percentage (.370) and slugging percentage (.473) since the All-Star Break? Yesterday’s heroes have played prominent roles in the turnaround. Matsui has arguably been the hottest hitter in all of baseball since the break. His big fly yesterday extended his hitting streak to 15 games and he’s now hitting a Major League-leading .451 with seven doubles, five home runs and 22 RBI in the 22 games since the All-Star Game. And Willingham, who has exhibited legitimate power all season long (as his team-high 17 homers would suggest), ranks among the American League’s leaders in walks (7th, 14), home runs (9th, 6) and RBI (13th, 19) since the break. Then, when you add a resurgent Cliff Pennington, who’s hitting .375 since the break and Coco Crisp, the AL’s stolen base leader(37) who’s hitting .275 with a team-high 22 doubles as perhaps the team’s most consistent performer, and you see why this team is starting to gain traction. Then add Jemile Weeks as our dynamic new leadoff man who’s done nothing but impress with his .293 batting average and team-best six triples, and Ryan Sweeney, who’s getting a little more playing time and has hit .326 since the All-Star Break. And we’re not even counting David DeJesus, who has perserved through perhaps his most frustrating season and has gone 5 for 10 with a double, two homers and two RBIs in the A’s wins the past two days.
Yet, as the Gods of Baseball would have it, our pitching staff’s performances have waned a bit during this same period of offensive fortune. However, we’re still making overall progress. To post a 12-10 record since the All-Star Break, particulary against mostly upper-tier opponents like the Yankees, Angels, Tigers and Rays, speaks well about how this team, under Melvin, has begun to gel. That said, we all know that reality can be cruel at times, something our current 51-63 record would suggest. But, sports in its purest form is about competing. Competing no matter what the circumstance. Hopefully we can all let go of the A’s ulcerating first half of the season and enjoy a current team that has become just that–a team. For the first time this year, we’re beginning to look pretty solid in every facet of the game. So, when Matsui or Willingham launch a home run, or Crisp steals two or three bases, or Pennington and Weeks turn a fancy double play, my hope is you’ll not only see a great game, but you’ll also see a better future for the Green and Gold. Hang in there and keep the faith. All indications are there are better days ahead.