June 2013

DESPITE ROAD TRIP, A’S REMAIN IN GOOD POSITION

Let’s take a deep breath and exhale.  Yes, it’s true the A’s went a rather uninspiring 2-5 on their just-completed road trip. In the process, their three-game lead in the AL West melted away about as fast as you could say Nelson Cruz and Raul Ibanez.  But let’s try to have some perspective.  Despite the disappointing trip, Bob Melvin’s troops are still perched 10 games above .500 at 44-34 and trail the Texas Rangers by only one game in standings.

A year ago on this date?  Oakland stood at 35-38, lodged in third place in the AL West and trying to extricate itself from a 10-game deficit to Texas.  On this date last season, the Athletics were averaging 3.8 runs per game and hitting an almost anemic .227.  This year, the A’s are batting 22 points higher with a team average of .249 and are also averaging nearly one run more per game (4.6).  And consider this:  the 2013 A’s are playing at a .564 clip even though their two best hitters from last year have yet to warm up as we close the door on June.  Yoenis Cespedes is batting .224, while Josh Reddick owns a .216 figure.  It’s safe to say both should hit much better in the season’s second half.   Meanwhile, three key young arms in our starting rotation—Jarrod Parker (4.27), A.J. Griffin (3.90) and Tommy Milone (3.98)—are bound to improve their ERAs in the final three months.  Last season, Parker, Griffin and Milone finished the regular season with ERAs of 3.60, 3.06 and 3.74, respectively.

While there’s good reason to conclude the Athletics are in a good position as we head into midseason, there is no question they will have to prove their mettle over the next few weeks if they want to be considered a legitimate playoff contender.  Beginning with the defending NL Central champion Cincinnati Reds tomorrow night, Oakland will face a six-team stretch before the All-Star Break where its cumulative opponents’ winning percentage is .548 (249-205).  What’s more, four of the six teams on their schedule—Cincinnati (45-32), St. Louis (47-29), Boston (45-33) and Pittsburgh (46-30)—have won more games than the Green & Gold at this point of the campaign.

So, if you want to see some intense, competitive baseball, I suggest you head out to the O.co Coliseum in the next couple weeks.  Even though we haven’t yet hit the midway point of the season, these games might give any early indication what teams might be playing come October.  The proof will be on the field.  Hope to see you early and often.

THE ARRIVAL OF JOSH DONALDSON, A STAR IN THE MAKING

How can one of the leading American League MVP candidates not be considered a favorite to land a spot on the All-Star team this year? By all means, chew on that for a minute.

We talk of Josh Donaldson, arguably the heart and soul of an Oakland A’s team that has chiseled out the best record in the majors since June 1 of last season. Batting .324 with 18 doubles, nine home runs and 42 RBI thus far, he ranks among the league’s Top 10 in virtually every important offensive category. And if you want to talk about being clutch, consider that 10 of his 42 RBI have been game-winning RBIs. That’s the most in the American League and second most in the majors.

What has always baffled me about All-Star voting is it seems to be only based on a player’s offensive statistics, as though that’s the only aspect of the game that matters. In the context of winning, defense might be even more valuable. Only a couple of days ago, Bob Melvin said that he considered Josh Reddick gunning down a White Sox runner at home plate the equivalent of Josh hitting a home run. Third base has always been a challenging position to fill in baseball, as defensively it requires someone with extremely quick reflexes, soft hands and a strong arm. Not since Gold Glove winner Eric Chavez patrolled the hot corner back in the early 2000’s have the A’s featured someone who brings the whole package until JD arrived as a converted catcher last season. And the strides he has taken in such a short time span is truly remarkable. His athleticism, range and decisiveness, along with a howitzer of an arm that rarely misfires, makes Donaldson one of the best fielding third baseman in either league. For two reasons, I know that may sound insane to many of you.

First, how can someone who never played the position professionally until a little over a year ago possibly master it and be compared with the game’s best? Well, watch the nightly highlights on MLB Network or ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and the proof is unquestionably there. Secondly, the American League’s cup runneth over when it comes to elite all-around third basemen this season. It almost reminds me of those days a decade ago, when the stable of shortstops included such megastars as Cal Ripken, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada and Omar Vizquel. Start with last year’s AL MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, who may not only repeat as the Triple Crown Winner, but may challenge Hack Wilson’s long-held single season RBI record of 190. Then there’s Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria, already regarded as one of the majors finest and a consummate team leader, and Texas’ slugger and Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre. Then add Donaldson and Baltimore’s phenom Manny Machado, and you can see why a very deserving third sacker may not make the team.

As we know, large market teams tend to get the most media exposure, which can also impact the vote, as can those teams who play in newer venues that attract capacity crowds. That said, I would hope that a club’s position in the standings carries extra weight and could serve as the wild card when determining who makes the All-Star team, or for that matter, who receives the most votes at the end of the year for the league MVP award. Certainly there is still plenty of baseball left to play, so the subject might still be a bit premature. However, if you’re a baseball fan in the Bay Area—or really anywhere in the world—I would hope you would take a closer look at what Josh Donaldson has become, and what he means to the team that has won more games than any other Major League club over the past seven months of baseball, dating back to last season. He deserves your All-Star vote. Come out to the Coliseum for the Yankees series this week and cast your ballot. And welcome home your A’s, who come off a 4-3 road trip that saw them gain 2 ½ games on the first place Rangers last week.

SO THIS IS 40: COLÓN LEADS BY EXAMPLE AND WITH A GOOD DOSE OF HUMOR

Has there ever been anyone quite like Bartolo Colón?   He’s a burly, bear of a man who refuses to give into hitters and refuses to grow up.   Don’t look now, but at the tender age of 40, the Round Mound of Renown is 6-2 with a 3.33 ERA, ranked among the American League’s Top 10 in several pitching categories and forcing his way into the conversation for 2013 All-Star consideration.

And the way he goes about it is almost comical.   Nothing seems to faze him.   Earlier this season, a steady rain pelted the diamond at Fenway Park in Boston.  While the Red Sox pitchers asked for help in reshaping the wet mound almost on an inning by inning basis, Colón waved off the home plate umpire every time he came out to ask him if he needed any assistance from the grounds crew.  Rain or shine, the Human Strike Machine never misses a beat.  With only Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez with more career wins among Dominican pitching legends, Colón has seen it all during his 16 years in the big leagues.  He might be one of the most unique team leaders I have ever encountered.

His English is quite limited, but that does not limit Bartolo’s ability to connect with his A’s teammates.   Every day he enters the clubhouse, it’s like a kid in the proverbial candy store.  As far as Bartolo Colón concerned, every day in a baseball uniform is a day in heaven.   He arrives with a big smile and leaves with an even bigger one.  In between, he has a profound influence on our entire roster.  Here’s what you learn when you observe him on a daily basis:

  • He’s a real pro with a great work ethic.  With shades of a 40-something Nolan Ryan, Colón religiously rides the stationary bike to maintain the most important aspect of his pitching—his legs.  Then he’s one of the first pitchers to hit the field for stretching, long toss and running.  Despite his advanced age and nearly 2,500 innings inside that right arm, it’s rare to see him in the training room.  And whether he wins or loses a start, he only has one expression:  a wide smile that suggests life is going to be okay and the sun will, indeed, rise tomorrow.  A good lesson for the Ryan Cooks and Nate Freimans to learn.

 

  • He’s one of baseball’s true characters.  Almost goofy at times, the big right-hander makes it perfectly clear to everyone that baseball should be fun.   Like a grade-school kid, he’s been known to sneak up from behind teammates—heck, even the PR director—and tap them on the opposite shoulder while he walks away as an innocent man.  And of course, there’s the oversized and heavy red ball he constantly throws into his glove in the clubhouse and at his locker.  What it does for him, I don’t know, but he slams it with a particular gusto that tends to catch your attention.  Before he made mincemeat of the White Sox Saturday, I asked Sean Doolittle before the game where Bartolo was.  “The usual—he’s bouncing that ball off the wall at his locker,” Doolittle said with a grin.  And of course, as some of you might have read, Bob Melvin went to the mound in Texas in the late innings recently, wondering how much Bartolo still had in the tank.   He asked him, “How are you feeling?”  Colón’s response:  “How are you doing?”

 

  • He’s a kind, humble person.  There’s humility about Bartolo that’s truly engaging.  You learn real quick that it’s never about him.  He deflects any praise, whether from the media or his teammates.  Even though he’s won a Cy Young Award and 177 games in his career, he’s the furthest thing from a prima donna.  Maybe it’s because he grew up in a very modest home in Altamira, D.R., where there was reportedly no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing.  Now, without any fanfare, he donated $50,000 to the American Red Cross to help hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi, and has provided funding for an amateur baseball stadium in his hometown of Altamira.

And through it all, Bartolo remains a big kid, tossing his glove up in the air after retiring the side, then snatching before it falls to the ground.  So this is 40.  Or at least 40 for Bartolo Colón, the man that Derek Jeter once called “one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.”  The scene that will be indelibly etched in my mind forever happened just Saturday.   Here was Colon, the ancient Athletic, walking up the ramp from the field after pitching a six-hit shutout in what amounted to a clinic that lasted only two hours and 14 minutes.   If there was any doubt how much his teammates love and respect him, all you had to do is watch the reception he received when he entered the clubhouse.   Every player, from Josh Donaldson to Josh Reddick to Grant Balfour, stood at their lockers and gave the Round Mound of Renown a standing ovation that lasted for at least 60 seconds.   There is no higher praise.

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