August 2012

TWO TOP BAY AREA SPORTS STORIES ON DISPLAY TONIGHT

Beyond the obvious connection with native son Jonny Gomes, it does seem only appropriate that the Oakland Athletics would host the Petaluma National Little League team upon their triumphant return from Williamsport.  After all, are there two more improbable stories in Bay Area sports this year?  Or any year, for that matter?

Gomes, a very busy man, is not only making a key contribution as a part-time starter (15 HR, 37 RBI in 78 games) in Oakland, but he’s been the spiritual leader of two teams—the A’s and Petaluma.  It became a common scene to see Jonny camped in front of the clubhouse television before games, living and dying on every pitch of Petaluma’s magical run to the U.S. Championship Game.  Now, when Manager Eric Smith and his Little Leaguers arrive at the Coliseum tonight and shag balls during batting practice, you half expect Jonny to be wearing the same canary-yellow jersey—sleeves cut off, of course—and “West” cap that “his kids” wore last week.  Having gotten to know Jonny a little this year, I wouldn’t put it past him.  And when we start assessing these crazy A’s chances to reach the postseason, I think it’s about time to say the same thing.

When you post the best record (51-27) in baseball since June 2, register the best July mark (19-5) in the 111-year history of your franchise, and now return home on a six-game winning streak after a four-game road sweep of Cleveland, the body of evidence starts to catch your attention.  It’s August 31st people!  For those of you die-hards out there, I realize you have been with us every step of the way.  We’ve all invested a lot in this team, and deservedly so.  This team is clearly more than a sum of its parts.  To start with, it is exactly that—a team.  When Brandon Inge goes down, Josh Donaldson answers the bell and goes on a hitting tear to provide critical offensive punch in the lower half of our lineup.  Whether as a starter or long reliever, Travis Blackley has proved invaluable as one of the more undersung pitchers.  Yesterday, it’s reliever Jim Miller who stops the bleeding in the final two innings of a 12-7 slugfest that didn’t want to end.  And also yesterday, there’s backup catcher George Kottaras delivering a three-run double that staked Bob Melvin’s club to a 4-1 lead that they refused to relinquish.

In recent years, an A’s fan’s only wish was that their team was playing “meaningful games” in the month of September.  Well, that time has returned to the Coliseum this year.  We have only a precious 15 games left on the home schedule, starting with this six-game homestand against the Red Sox and Angels.  It’s a big weekend with the Little League heroes of Petaluma being honored pre-game tonight, a celebration of the “Bernie dance” on Saturday with actor Terry Kiser (the star of the “Weekend with Bernie” movies) throwing out the first pitch, and then the always poignant Breast Cancer Awareness Day front and center on Sunday.

So, if you thought this season has been more fun than expected, we’re only getting started.  The games really count from here on in.  And if there’s one thing we have learned about this team it’s this:  Don’t underestimate their will to win.  As Mr. Gomes, in his duel cheerleading role, has told our youngsers as well as the Petaluma Little League team this year:  “Hey fellas, don’t be afraid to be a hero!”

Hope to see you at the yard this weekend.  I know I wouldn’t miss it.  There’s something special going on here.

BABY-FACED STRAILY A POSTER CHILD FOR 2012 A’S

Just how young is this A’s team?  Well, as we checked into the Landmark private terminal at Oakland Airport today, our latest rookie pitching phenom Dan Straily proudly pulled a wallet out of his trousers as we headed to the security screening station.  With a wry grin, the pride of Marshall University opened it to his Oregon driver’s license.  I literally made a double-take.  The young teenager pictured looked about as old as an Athletics’ batboy—14 years old tops.  “They shot this on my 16th birthday,” he said with a chuckle.   We both shook our heads, realizing the absurdity of what has transpired in this young man’s life almost overnight.

Of course, the same can be said about numerous A’s players this season.  Maybe what has been the most gratifying about this upstart team is they know they have truly earned what they have accomplished up to this point.  Even with shortstop Cliff Pennington activated off the disabled list Tuesday, the 2012 Oaklanders feature only four players on their current 25-man roster who were with us for Opening Night last season.  That’s right, four—Coco Crisp, Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins and Pennington.  So, this group inherited nothing.  Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein were the architects of a total rebuild job.  And Bob Melvin and his staff have taken this new assemblage of personnel and molded it into a tight-nit unit that is equal parts exceptional young talent, veteran leadership, and slow-developing castoffs who never lost belief in themselves.  And as outfielder-turned-Spiderman Josh Reddick told reporters following yesterday’s stirring 9-8 win over the Angels, when you sweep the Beasts of the East (Yankees and Red Sox) during an unworldly July, you start to believe you can beat anyone.  Press clippings and team payrolls, be damned!

Yet, this is a team that doesn’t rely only on chemistry and spirit.  Over the past several weeks, it’s becoming more and more evident that the A’s arsenal of quality arms may actually give them an edge over the competition.  At times running out four rookies in their five-man rotation—including two (Straily and A.J. Griffin) who were roommates at Single-A Stockton last season—and featuring two other rookies (Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle) in the back end of their suffocating bullpen, this group of fresh arms has been the key ingredient in propelling the A’s staff to the best ERA in the American League.  Yes, statistically better than the Angels and their four aces, better than the Rangers and their World Series-tested group, better than the David Price-led, pitching-rich Rays, and yes, better than the presiding Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander and the veteran Tigers.  Not only do numbers not lie, the A’s young guns are also passing the sight test.  Whether it’s outdueling CC Sabathia and the Yankees, or C.J. Wilson and the Angels, the Athletics’ pitchers have just run through a two-month gauntlet of elite opposing starters, and more often than not, the Green and Gold have prevailed.

And while several contenders swung deals to acquire front-line pitchers at the Trading Deadline, the A’s baseball brass were fully aware in-house reinforcements were already on the way in the August.  Brandon McCarthy, the team’s Opening Night starter, has been cleared to start tomorrow night in Chicago after a lengthy rehab assignment.  Brett Anderson, another potential top-of-the-rotation star, should be showcasing that filthy slider with the big league club within days as he rounds into shape at Sacramento after 2011 Tommy John surgery.  Griffin, who says his rapid ascent this year is because “I only see nameless, faceless batters on the mound when I pitch,” should also be returning from a short DL stint caused by a stiff shoulder recently.  And, of course, we always hold out hope that the effervescent Dallas Braden will return before season’s end as he heals from last season’s shoulder surgery and last month’s groin strain.

As the young Straily learned yesterday at the Coliseum, there will be up and downs as the playoff race heats up.  In the first inning, he masterfully struck out the Angels’ talented trio of Mike Trout, Torii Hunter and Albert Pujols in succession.  Then the pendulum swung the other way, as he was tagged for four solo home runs, forcing him to exit the game after surrendering a 4-1 lead in the fifth inning.  But in what has been a recurring story of this improbable A’s season, other team members picked up Straily with a five-run rally and clutch relief pitching to steer yet another tense game to the win column.  The overall result has the Athletics perched in second place in the AL West with a 60-51 record, the fifth-best mark in the American League and sharing the current Wild Card lead.  As I survey our lofty position, I can’t help but wonder:  isn’t it about time for Dan Straily to renew his driver’s license so he can take a more age-appropriate photo?

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