July 2012

A’S KNOW HOME FIELD ADVANTAGE CRITICAL TO PLAYOFF HOPES

Another hurdle cleared.  A 4-2 road trip suggests this team felt no hangover effects from last week’s four-game sweep of the Yankees in Oakland.  Whew.  If anything, the all-for-one, one-for-all  Atleticos seemed genuinely buoyed by the conquest of New York, and their deadly mix of stifling pitching and lethal offense resulted in consecutive series wins in Toronto and Baltimore.  In the process, Bob Melvin’s boys sped past the Angels and now sit within striking distance of the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers.

If this sounds kind of remarkable to you, it’s only because it is.  But when you break it all down, there are many factors at work.  Yoenis Cespedes has emerged as a bona fide star, leading the majors in hitting (.443) since the All-Star Break and now giving even the uber-talented Mike Trout a legitimate run for Rookie of the Year honors (I know that sounds ridiculous, considering what Trout has meant to the Halos this season, but take a look at the numbers—the Yo Man is starting to creep up statistically on the odds-on favorite to win the award).  Josh Reddick continues to play with reckless abandon in the field and a slew of extra base hits at the plate—this, when not modeling authentic Spider-Man costumes in the clubhouse (no really, I saw it with my own eyes Saturday at Camden Yards).  Chris Carter, Brandon Moss and Brandon Inge, proving that batting average can be overrated, have supplied Melvin with plenty of home run and RBI sock at the corner infield positions during this unworldly 18-4 stretch.  Coco Crisp has re-emerged as a leadoff force, while switch-hitting compatriot Jemile Weeks showed flashes of his 2011 form over the weekend at both the top and bottom of the lineup.  Add Seth Smith, the man who single-handedly drives pitcher’s psyches and pitch counts to extremes before usually ripping a decisive blow, and you can see why our offense averaged 8.5 runs on our road trip.  And, of course, our pitching has been a constant all season long.  No matter who takes the mound—rookie, veteran, Aussie—you can pretty much write in a quality performance.  And while the quintet of Bartolo Colon, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Travis Blackley have done quite nicely, there are also veteran reinforcements on the way.  Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy, top-of-the-rotation left-hander Brett Anderson and staff leader/perfect game author Dallas Braden are all in various stages of rehab work which should lead to their respective returns in the coming weeks.  Sweet music to the ears of all A’s fans!

Yet, the key to this improbable playoff run is the well-worn confines of the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.  Any team with postseason aspirations has to establish and exploit a true home field advantage.  That’s something that the A’s new skipper has been preaching ever since he took over the reins in midstream last year.  And at the most unexpected moment—a two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning walk-off homer by rookie Derek Norris that salvaged the final game of the Giants series—a seed was planted in Oakland that has sprouted into a magical run for the A’s at the Coliseum.  Since that fateful pitch thrown by Santiago Casilla, Melvin’s troops have won 11 of their last 13 games on home soil.  And to fuel the fire further, seven of those 11 victories have been of the walk-off variety.  Since opening the season with a 10-16 home mark, the A’s have now proceeded to post a blistering 18-5 record at the Coliseum since June 6.  In any league, that’s domination at home.  Then you consider that 14 of those 18 wins came at the hands of division-leading teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants, plus the then-playoff contending Red Sox, and the legitimacy of Oakland’s home field advantage can no longer be disputed.

Tonight, the A’s christen a 10-game homestand featuring quality opponents in the Rays, Blue Jays and Angels.  We certainly hope all A’s fans will frequent the Coliseum often this week and throughout the stretch run.  The excitement you collectively created in our past homestand against Texas and New York absolutely played a role in our 5-1 record against the American League favorites.  Beyond the next 10 games, the A’s will play 16 of their next 22 games in the Oakland Coliseum.  While it will be difficult to duplicate what the team accomplished in July, let’s make August a month of more walk-off thrills and meaningful victories.  Together, we might just ride this wave to new, dizzying places that, only three months ago, nobody thought possible.  See you at the yard!

THE IMPROBABILITY OF A’S BASEBALL: GET USED TO IT

Let’s face it folks, the improbable is becoming even more improbable.

Brandon Hicks, a 26-year-old infielder claimed off waivers from Atlanta who hit .038 (1-for-26) for the Braves over the past two seasons and batted only .211 for Triple-A Gwinett in 2011, smacks a walk-off home run to beat AL West-leading Texas in Wednesday’s matinee at the Coliseum.

The following evening in Oakland, a cerebral right-hander drafted in the 13th round out of the University of San Diego continues to defy the odds by pitching the A’s to a series-opening 4-3 win over the New York Yankees, owners of the best record in baseball.  This, from A.J. Griffin, a kid who was converted from reliever to starter last year whose brief bio appears in the minor league section of our media guide.

Then on Friday, the second straight rookie starter sparkles, as Tommy Milone strikes out a career-high 10 hitters over eight shutout innings, setting the stage for the much-traveled Brandon Moss.  A career .236 hitter in parts of five seasons with three previous Major League teams who was signed to a minor league contract in November, Moss delivers a walk-off single to beat the Yankees, 3-2.

Already assured at least a split in the series, unbelievably the best was still yet to come.  Jarrod Parker, yet another rookie pitcher, follows Milone’s masterpiece with one of his own, handing a 2-1 lead to the closer.  Except on this Saturday, the closer is not All-Star Ryan Cook, who’s given the night off after clinching three straight wins.  No, the honors go to the most improbable Athletic of all—Sean Doolittle.  By now, you probably know his story….41st overall player chosen in the 2007 Draft as a hot-shot first base prospect…misses the entire 2011 season due to a torn left patella that requires surgery that essentially ends his baseball career as a position player…starts to tinker with pitching late in his rehab, trying to recapture his prowess on the mound during his college days at the University of Virginia…he pitches only one game in the Arizona Fall League, then after an impressive Spring Training he zooms up the minor league ladder from Stockton, to Midland, to Sacramento before being called up to the big league June 4.

So, now, still less than a year removed from being a non-pitcher, Doolittle is summoned from the bullpen to face the most feared lineup in baseball.  Unflappable as a description doesn’t do him justice.  His glove customarily tucked under his chin, he stares down the big, bad Pinstripers, allowing one harmless single and proceeding to strike out the side in posting his first major league save—a save he will never forget.  Personally, what I will not forget is the scene in the clubhouse afterwards.  Right at the front of the reception line at the top of the tunnel was 67-year-old John “Blue Moon” Odom, the former A’s legend visiting from his home in Anaheim, doing some kind of a Michael Jackson shimmy which, at that moment, made about as much sense as anything else about these 2012 A’s.

You want more?  Okay, let’s try Sunday.  Bartolo Colon, a man who could be the father of the three previous starters in the series, stumbles in the early going in allowing four runs to his former team.  At this point, with CC Sabathia toiling for the Yanks, A’s fans are probably telling themselves, “Well, at least we won the series.”  As ESPN’s Lee Corso might say, “Not so fast, friend.”  You want improbable?  Okay, let’s start with the best .200 hitter in the majors, Brandon Inge, released by Detroit April 29, launching a home run to close the deficit to 4-1.  Then follow that with Kurt Suzuki, relegated to part-time status after hitting .184 with three RBI over his last 33 games, rediscovering his mojo and snapping a personal 78-game home run drought by drilling a solo shot into the left field bleachers to slice the lead in half.  After adding another run, however, the A’s still faced the daunting task of facing Yankee closer Rafael Soriano—who entered the game having blown only one save all season—in the ninth still trailing 4-3.  Seth Smith, who possesses surprising power to center field, arrived right on cue as he turned on a Soriano fastball and sent it over the head of the helpless Curtis Granderson—and over the fence—to tie the game in dramatic fashion.  Meanwhile, Oakland’s AL-leading bullpen slammed the door on New York’s potent offense, as lefties Jordan Norberto and Jerry Blevins and workhorse Grant Balfour reeled off zeroes the rest of the way.  A Derek Norris single and Jemile Weeks one-out sacrifice bunt in the 12th inning set the stage for yet another walk-off hero.  Coco Crisp, this pie is for you!  Single over the out-stretched glove of Robinson Cano.  Game over.  Four-game sweep accomplished.

In reflection of what just transpired, this blog would not be complete without a mention of the electrifying Yoenis Cespedes.  While we have seen this building for quite some time, there’s no doubt that the New York series was his official coming out party.  He will no longer be our little secret.  In the land of superstars called the Yankees, no player shined more brightly than the charismatic 26-year-old Cuban.  The way the ball jumped off his bat—including another laser home run and four-hit game—and the blazing speed he exhibited on the base paths and in the outfield was perhaps the most impressive aspect of the weekend.  Prior to the series, there was a poignant moment in the hallway outside Steve Vucinich’s office.  It’s where Vuc has displayed every cover of Sports Illustrated that has featured an Oakland A’s player through the years.  Prior to batting practice one day, there was Zuk giving the Yo-Yo Man a personal tour.  They walked past covers of Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Mark McGwire.  Then Cespedes stopped in his tracks, as he looked at another SI cover that featured the Roadrunner, Campy Campaneris.  He smiled and shouted, “Cubano!”  I had to chuckle, and think “Why not dream, Yo?  Some day that will be you.”

And a few final observations as we prepare for today’s series opener in Toronto:

– First, there may be teams with much higher payrolls and much nicer home venues than the Oakland A’s.  But I seriously doubt there is one team having as much fun as this club is having right now.  The slapping of sticks in simulated hockey games—Sunday it was Inge, Gomes, Weeks and who knows who—continue to ring out in the upstairs tunnel above the clubhouse before home games.  And on Saturday prior to BP, we were also treated by former Red Sox Josh Reddick doing an over-the-top, laugh-out-loud impression of Kevin Youkilis, complete with the waggling of his upright bat, followed by hands thrown heaven-ward after a make-believe home run.

– Second, you have to feel for our baseball braintrust headed by Billy Beane.  When the Angels added Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson during an off-season signing spree, Billy remarked that those Angels’ acquisitions, coupled with the return of the two-time AL Champion Texas Rangers in the division, made his decisions to trade All-Stars Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey much easier to digest.  But now, it is his own handiwork which may cause a few sleepless nights for the A’s GM.  This club has jelled beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, with Bob Melvin and his staff nurturing the young upstarts while also freeing the seasoned veterans to provide the leadership that has led to the best record in the majors since June 2.  Whether we’re buyers or sellers at the trading deadline remains to be seen, but there’s no questioning that the landscape has changed dramatically since the season started.  The magic and team chemistry we’re witnessing on a nightly basis can only, in recent memory, be compared to the 2002 club that went on that wild, 20-win streak depicted in the recent move, Moneyball—an accomplishment being celebrated next month at the Coliseum on the 10-year anniversary of Scott Hatteberg’s home run that clinched the final win.  It was truly a remarkable walk-off moment at the Coliseum.  Now, 10 years later, we have already staged 11 walk-off victories in perhaps an even more improbable season.

– So, with all that has happened during the just-completed 5-1 homestand against arguably the best teams in baseball, it only stands to reason that we would start the road trip tonight at Rogers Centre with a colorful Aussie on the mound, Travis Blackley, a 29-year-old journeyman who was claimed off waivers May 15 from the Giants after pitching for Chihuahua of the Mexican League in 2010 and KIA of the South Korean League last year.   Folks, welcome the 2012 Oakland A’s, where improbable is a way of life. Get used to it. We’re in for a wild ride the rest of the way.

WALK-OFF WINS, COLORFUL CHARACTERS, RISING YOUNG STARS, LIGHTS-OUT PITCHING HIGHLIGHT A’S FIRST HALF

Sometimes in sports, the improbable happens.  There’s no plausible explanation how a team considered an also-ran simply ignores pre-season predictions and decides to join the party.  Isn’t this what we love about sports?

While it’s still premature to draw conclusions, your barely-old-enough-to-shave A’s have climbed the hill to .500 and sit only 2 ½ games out of the second Wild Card spot at the All-Star Break.  They lead the majors in walk-off victories (eight) and lead the American League in ERA (3.38).  So, how did this happen?  How did a team that lost three All-Star pitchers in the offseason, features a pitching rotation with only one returning starter from 2011, has employed a Major League-high 17 rookies and American League-low team payroll, managed to become relevant almost overnight?  From the inside, here’s my take:

Team Chemistry—It’s difficult to quantify what I see in our clubhouse almost on a daily basis.  Over in one corner, there’s The Pride of Petaluma, Jonny Gomes, wearing a canary-yellow boxing robe embroidered with a green No. 31 and “Gomes,” and telling rookies, “Hey, don’t be afraid to be a hero today!”  A few lockers down, there’s Brandon Inge, a Detroit Red Wings fan wielding a hockey stick and trying to shoot a “puck” past the robed Gomes.  In between, first-year Athletic Josh Reddick—he of the flowing locks and 20 home runs at the break—has his WWE championship belt on display.  On the 4th of July, Gomes has Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” jacked up to glass-shattering decibels before that afternoon’s game against the Red Sox.  Now, on the opposite side of the clubhouse are other characters that would most certainly rival Gomes, Inge and Reddick, although these guys are pitchers.  There’s Mr. Rehab from the 209, Dallas Braden, who continues to be the Epicenter of Ecentricity.  Nothing is off limits for the Vocal One.  Recently, he decided to serve as Jerry Blevins’ campaign manager for the team’s election for a new union player rep.  His hand-made slogans for Blevins were attached to virtually every surface in the clubhouse, although the verbiage written cannot be shared in this blog.  Positioned next to Dallas in the clubhouse is the ageless Bartolo Colon, who while must quieter than Braden, might be his equal in terms of mischief.  In all my years in professional sports, I have never seen someone as loose or fun-loving on game day as this former Cy Young Award winner.  He constantly is playing games with me in the clubhouse.  Before Sunday’s game, I’m strolling past Bob Melvin’s office toward the training room.  Out of nowhere comes Colon—truly a bear of a man—and what does he do?  He chest bumps me.  That’s right, chest bumps me.  On the day he is pitching.  So much for pre-game rituals.  And, of course, there’s the resident Aussies, Grant Balfour and Travis Blackley, two fun-loving veterans who act like they don’t have a care in the world.  Then add the cool index and star quality of guys like Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks and Yoenis Cespedes, and our 2012 club is truly one of the more colorful in all of baseball.  Bottom line, what it really means is this is a loose club, one that is playing with fun and confidence.  And all 25 guys are pulling the same direction, thanks to Melvin and his staff, and could care less about personal statistics.  The only stat for them is wins.  And considering they won 21 of their last 34 games while facing the likes of the Texas Rangers, San Francisco Giants, Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox leading up to the break, the idea of a winning record and playoff contention is no longer so far fetched.

Young, Good & Getting Better—While a 43-43 record may not overwhelm some, it’s impressive when you consider the key players on this team are rookies or near rookies.  What other club in baseball can boast such neophytes as position players Reddick (.268, 20 HR, 43 RBI, 8 SB), Cespedes (.263, 9 HR, 36 RBI), Weeks (.222, 5 triples, 12 SB), Brandon Moss (.253, 10 HR, 18 RBI in 26 games), Derek Norris (.244, 2 HR, 6 RBI in 11 games) and Chris Carter (.353, 3 HR, 5 RBI in six games), or pitchers such as All-Star Ryan Cook (2-2, 1.41 ERA, 8 saves, .105 opponents BA), Jarrod Parker (5-4, 2.86 ERA), Tommy Milone (8-6, 3.57 ERA), A.J. Griffin (0-0, 1.50 ERA), Sean Doolittle (1-0, 2.45 ERA, 24 SO, 3 BB in 14.2 innings) or Jordan Norberto (2-1, 3.03 ERA)?  In fact, it’s not a stretch to say the A’s will have multiple Rookie of the Year candidates this season, starting with Cook, Cespedes, Parker and Millone.  And because all of them are getting estimable playing time, this is now a much more experienced nucleus of young players who are becoming a tight, more seasoned unit as we approach the dog days.

Arms, Arms, Arms—Besides clubhouse humor, the one constant on the 2012 A’s has been pitching.  Despite the relative youth of the staff—only starters Colon and Brandon McCarthy, and relievers Balfour and Blevins can be considered veterans—pitching coach Curt Young has worked wonders in establishing a group that leads the American League in both overall ERA (3.38) and starters ERA (3.67).  Before we go further, just consider some of the pitching-rich teams in the AL, starting with the two pre-season favorites in our own division, the Rangers and Angels.  As our roster is currently constituted (including McCarthy on the DL), no less than nine of our pitchers boast an ERA under 3.00—Evan Scribner 0.00, Cook 1.41, Griffin 1.50, Jim Miller 1.78, Doolittle 2.45, McCarthy 2.54, Blevins 2.57, Blackley 2.63 and Parker 2.86.  All of that adds up to Oakland pitchers allowing two runs or less in 15 of the last 23 games, and A’s starting pitchers yielding two runs or fewer in 20 of the last 23 games.  Any way you slice it, that’s phenomenal pitching.  And as they say, it’s hard to get beat if you don’t give up any runs.

What the pundits will be saying about this unique group at season’s end is anyone’s guess.  But if you’re looking for positive vital signs, it goes a lot further than Jonny Gomes’ embroidered name on his robe.

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