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.