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.