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SOGARD, OTERO & FREIMAN HAVE BEEN 2013 REVELATIONS

Whether the 2013 Oakland Athletics make this season a memorable one, as they did during last year’s magical run, still remains to be seen.  However, for three A’s players, the 2013 campaign is one they will always remember.   Why?  Because for Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman, it was 2013 when they truly established themselves as Major League players.

Beyond the “Nerd Power” persona and marketing slogan, Sogie has gained attention in the best possible way.  He has played his way into a semi-regular role with the team, starting at second base against right-handed pitchers in a highly-productive platoon arrangement with Alberto Callaspo.  After three seasons of shuttling between Sacramento and Oakland on I-80, the diminutive infielder seems to have finally found a home here.   Doing many of the “small things” that help win ball games, whether it be turning double plays, laying down a perfect bunt, or delivering a clutch two-out hit, Sogard has become a vital cog in Operation Oakland.  He’s currently batting .263 with two homers and 31RBI, but maybe most significantly, ranks third on the club in doubles (24) behind Jed Lowrie (40) and Josh Donaldson (29).  And in the process, he’s become one of the team’s most popular fan favorites.  When the Rangers’ Matt Garza recently barked at Sogard, whose boyish face looks more like an IT repairman than a big league player, for laying down a bunt, it only added to the Sogie legend.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland AthleticsAs for Otero, the 28-year-old right-hander has been a revelation in the bullpen this summer.  After toiling in the minors for several years, he saw brief action with the Giants last season.  He had hoped to make San Francisco’s roster again this spring, but ironically it was one nightmarish afternoon against the A’s at Scottsdale Stadium that may have led to his ultimate departure from the Giants.  On March 23, Otero entered the game in relief and hit the veritable buzz saw.   When the smoke and rubble cleared, he limped from the spring training game having been torched for five runs and five hits, including a home run by Adam Rosales—you remember him, the human ping pong ball–and retiring no one.  With that scenario, who could have guessed that five months later, Otero would become a fixture in Oakland’s stellar bullpen?  In fact, Otero—like Sogard—forced his way into a vital role with the team.  With his ERA gradually shrinking to a current team-low 1.19 (22 G, 30.1 ip, 29 h, 5 r, 4 er), the former River Cat closer is now being used in the back three innings of critical games. Maybe no one in the Oakland organization has come as far as Dan Otero has this year.

Chicago Cubs v Oakland AthleticsUnless, of course, if you consider the case of the Gentle Giant, Nate Freiman.  By now, you probably know the story.  Drafted by San Diego in 2009 out of Duke University, the 6-8, 250-pound first baseman was a RBI machine in the minors with a four-year total of 368.  However, the Padres never promoted him above Double-A.  And the Astros, another cellar-dwelling team who picked him in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason, also saw no need for a major league promotion when they acquired Chris Carter in the Lowrie deal.  So, one week before the season, the defending AL West champion A’s claimed the undervalued slugger off the waiver wire.  Considered a curious move at the time, Freiman wasted little time in rewarding his new employers.  He went 2-for-3 against Seattle in his big league debut April 3, and proceeded to bat .351 with nine RBI in 14 games in May to win American League Rookie of the Month.  Since that auspicious debut, he has hit consistently against left-handed pitching (.313) in a left-right platoon at first base with Brandon Moss and now Daric Barton.  Overall, he ranks fourth on the team with a .279 batting average, eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBI.  Not bad for a guy who skipped Triple-A.

So, no matter how this season ends, or how long their careers last, it’s safe to say that a collective smile will emerge when someone makes mention of the 2013 season to Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman.  And for good reason.

PITCHERS’ RESURGENCE IN TORONTO BODES WELL

Well, since last I checked in with you, there is a pool of liquid that has formed at the white shoe tops of our Oakland A’s.  It’s the last remains of a six-game lead that has melted away in the AL West.  During a period when the Texas Rangers flexed their financial muscle with two significant acquisitions—a front of the rotation starter in Matt Garza and middle-of-the-order hitter in Alex Rios—that coincided with an Athletics’ 4-7 tailspin, there were those in the national media who suggested the A’s magic of a year ago may not materialize in 2013.  One respected scribe on ESPN.com’s Grantland site, in fact, pointed to a downturn in Oakland’s young starting rotation as a red flag.  He implied that Texas was the superior team, and that the majority of Curt Young’s rotation is struggling, with no reason to believe they will right the ship.

My first reaction to the article was, “this is a tad premature.”  The sample size is way too small.  This is not to imply that Texas is not a formidable foe.   As we experienced last year, they certainly are.  However, as soon it was suggested that our starting pitching was in demise, we rattled off three victories in our four-game wrap-around series in Toronto over the weekend.   Not only did we rebound from two losses that opened the road trip in Cincinnati, but our starting pitchers performed splendidly against perhaps the most powerful lineup in the American League.  The Blue Jays, led by José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, Jose Reyes, Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus, are a bunch of mashers (as we saw recently when they launched a seemingly endless stream of home runs at the Coliseum).

Chicago White Sox v Oakland AthleticsOn Friday night, Jarrod Parker allowed six hits and three runs in 6.0 innings.  Saturday, rookie Sonny Gray made the first Major League start of his career and yielded only four hits and two earned runs in 6.0 innings.  Sunday, A.J. Griffin—who was scorched for four Jay home runs in Oakland only two weeks earlier—limited Toronto’s behemoths to five hits and two earned runs in 5.2 innings.  And in yesterday’s series finale, Dan Straily mowed down the Blue Jays to the tune of six hits and one run over a career-high 7.1 innings.  Collectively, the foursome posted a 2.88 ERA and averaged 6.25 innings per start at the Rogers Centre.

To me, that is a very encouraging sign for this young team as we enter the final six-and-half weeks of the regular season.  With Tommy Milone fine-tuning his pitches in Sacramento and Brett Anderson to begin a rehab assignment maybe within a matter of days, the A’s also have the luxury of two seasoned left-handers in their stable that will be ready when summoned.  And of course, the A’s bullpen might be arguably the best in the American League.  I’m not sure any other staff features a closer (Grant Balfour) with the top save percentage in the league, a right-handed set-up man (Ryan Cook) who just had a 75.2-inning homerless streak snapped over the weekend, and a left-handed set-up specialist (Sean Doolittle) who hasn’t allowed a run in his last 12 appearances.

With 26 of their final 45 games to be played in the pitching friendly confines of the Coliseum and sitting one game behind Texas at 67-50, I like our position.  We’re certainly battle-tested from last year’s race, so there will be no surprises for this team down the stretch.  Let’s all enjoy the ride.  It promises to be another frenetic finish. Although I do think we might want to consider an office pool, with the winner correctly guessing which uniform—the Rangers or A’s—Adam Rosales will be wearing on the season’s final day.

THERE’S ONE GIRL WHO CAN NAME MORE THAN THREE A’S PLAYERS

During Saturday’s FOX telecast of the A’s-Angels game, one announcer reportedly said that the national audience cannot name three Oakland players. This is a very popular view by many people who do not follow Bob Melvin’s first-place club on a regular basis.

If they did, they might know that Grant Balfour saved 44 consecutive games, a 113-year franchise record and the sixth longest such streak in Major League history. They might also know that Josh Donaldson plays a Gold Glove caliber third base perhaps comparable to Baltimore’s Manny Machado, and that he owns an almost identical batting average (.296 to Machado’s .297), has hit seven more home runs and driven in 11 more RBI than the Orioles’ young phenom. They would also know that Jed Lowrie has the second-highest batting average (.299) among shortstops in the American League. They might even know that Bartolo Colón, who ranks among the AL’s top three in wins, ERA and complete games, has a legitimate chance at winning his second Cy Young Award to join a select group of pitchers. And they would be aware that setup man extraordinaire Ryan Cook has a 2.15 ERA in 45 relief appearances and owns the longest current streak of homerless innings (46) of any pitcher in baseball.

1I do know this: there is a little girl from Modesto who can probably name every player on the A’s roster. Her name is Mykayla Herrera. She is eight years old and was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is a brittle bones condition that is genetic. Several months ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Eric Wallace, the president and co-founder of an organization called the Sons of Baseball Foundation. Similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they try to grant a wish to a deserving baseball fan. Mykayla is a die-hard A’s fan who watches or listens to every game during the season. She’s a very tiny girl due to her condition, but when she arrived with her parents, grandparents and other family and friends, her smiling face lit up the Coliseum. (Photo credit Luis Torres)

We hosted her on the field before Sunday’s game. The Sons of Baseball provided authentic A’s jerseys with “Herrera” on the backs to Mykayla and her family. Although there was not batting practice yesterday, her favorite player—Coco Crisp—agreed to come onto the field to meet her. He brought a baseball with him and signed it “To Mykayla, Coco Crisp.” The look on her face when he walked on the field was priceless. Her dream really was coming true. Little did she know her pre-game experience was just beginning.

2Soon after Coco left, she watched Bob Melvin do “The BoMel Show” with broadcaster Ken Korach in the dugout. When the show was taped, both men walked onto the field to say hello to Mykayla. She and her family could not believe their good fortune. Once Melvin returned to the dugout to address the media, the A’s pitchers took the field to do their daily pre-game stretch. One of the stragglers was Balfour, who stopped by to say hello to the Herrera family as well. I’m not sure if Mykayla was more fascinated by meeting the A’s closer or listening to his Australian accent. Either way, he was a big hit. When the pitchers were finished, a large bear-of-a-man stopped by the dugout, where Mykayla’s mother had placed her next to the bat rack. The sweet girl’s grandfather yelled, “It’s Bartolo Colón!” Her eyes widened almost as much as her smile. He touched her face, said a few words in Spanish, and then in English told her to wait and that he had something else for her. Colón jogged back to the clubhouse and reemerged with one of the official All-Star Game baseballs he was given in New York. He signed it and handed it to her. Pretty cool scene.

Before long, Tommy Milone also joined in as I introduced him to Mykayla. “This is the guy who was the winning pitcher in yesterday’s game.” She quickly responded: “I knew that!” At this point, it was past noon and our little fan probably thought the meetings were over, and she could get rest before she threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch—another part of her MVP Experience provided by the Sons of Baseball. However, just when she was about to leave the dugout, one final player made his way to see her. To crown her day, the 2013 Home Run Derby champion, Yoenis Céspedes, walked straight towards Mykayla with bat in hand. But before he could personally sign the bat, he bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The Cuban outfielder literally took her breath away. But not for long. She was truly in heaven, as the bigger-than-life star sat next to her on the bench, as family members took photos that soon will be part of her bedroom in Modesto. Fellow Cuban Ariel Prieto, A’s coach and Yoenis’ interpreter, joined in the party, also giving Mykayla a peck on the cheek and sharing some warm thoughts in their native tongue.

Once the player and coach had returned to the clubhouse to get their game faces on, it was almost time for the first pitch. Her grandfather told me that Mykayla had been practicing for days. Held by her mother and barely standing on the patch of grass near home plate, the shortest person at the ballpark let the ball fly, and in an ironic stroke, it was the A’s tallest player, Nate Freiman, who caught the pitch. Then, it was time for the family to join a group of about 30 family and friends from Modesto in the stands to watch the game. Even when the Angels bolted out to a 5-0 lead by the second inning, the irrepressible Mykayla Herrera just knew her boys would come back and win the game. And that they did, rallying to post a 10-6 victory that widened their lead in the AL West to a season-high six games. I know for me personally, as well as our players, it was a day bigger than baseball and one we won’t soon forget. Something tells me Mykayla might just feel the same way.

ONE ALL-STAR SELECTION DOESN’T DAMPEN A’S FIRST HALF

If you’re the Oakland A’s, maybe one is, indeed, the loneliest number.  Despite having the best record in all of baseball since June 1 of last year, we will send a grand total of one player to the 2013 All-Star Game at Citi Field in New York July 16.   That one player will be 40-year-old starting pitcher Bartolo Colon.  And oh how he deserves it.  An eight-game winning streak, 11-3 record and AL Pitcher of the Month in June, Colon seems to have recaptured the form that won him a Cy Young Award in 2005.

Grant Balfour, who just tied Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley’s franchise record for consecutive saves, didn’t make the cut.  That might be a first in All-Star annals, a closer with 40 straight saves who doesn’t make the team.  Neither did third baseman Josh Donaldson, who leads the American League in game-winning hits and ranks among the Top 10 in batting average, doubles, RBI, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and multiple-hit games—not to mention Gold Glove caliber defense.  This, despite being one of the league’s bona fide MVP candidates at the halfway point of the campaign.

It makes me think of those true-blue A’s fans who unfurl that banner out in the left field bleachers every game:  “Respect Oakland Baseball.”   But this is not a blog about sour grapes.  All of the players who were named on the American League All-Star Team are certainly worthy.  And in some ways, us landing only one All-Star is so Oakland.  Maybe being located in a small city on the West Coast is a disadvantage for national attention.   Or maybe the fact that we play so well as a team isn’t very sexy.  In a lot of ways, we really aren’t about individuals.  Instead, we’re about Donaldson and Jed Lowrie, who might just be the best offensive left side of an infield in the American League.  And we’re about Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and Chris Young, who might comprise the best overall outfield in the majors.  Or we’re about Balfour, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolitttle, et. al., who arguably could be the AL’s premier bullpen.   Same could be said for our starting rotation, which top to bottom, might be as deep as any team in baseball (BTW, does any other team boast a Brett Anderson or Sonny Gray in reserve?).   Ditto for our bench, which for any given game might be Smith, Brandon Moss and John Jaso.  Does any other team in the league feature such potent bats?

So, while I understand the teeth-gnashing and “we-wuz-robbed” cries coming from the Uptown District and other East Bay locales, don’t dwell on our scarcity of All-Stars.   As A’s fans who have watched this team win a division title and take World Series entry Detroit to a final Game 5 last year, and then follow that up with their best start in 23 years in 2013, you know the deal.  Under the vision and leadership of Billy Beane and Bob Melvin, this Oakland A’s team is about only one thing:  winning.  So when our boys return home next weekend to host the Boston Red Sox in a final three-game series before the All-Star Break, come out to the Coliseum and let them know how much we appreciate what they play—and stand—for.  It’s a noble cause, one which may lead to memories much greater than an All-Star Game.

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.

YANKEE STADIUM WAS THE SCENE OF A’S BIGGEST WIN

For many A’s players, this weekend’s series at Yankee Stadium may rekindle the Spirit of 2012. After all, it was in the Bronx last September that Bob Melvin’s club stood up to adversity and may have claimed their most meaningful victory of last season.

With 16 games left in the regular season, Oakland embarked on a three-city, 10-game road trip to three of the toughest venues for a visiting team to play—Detroit, New York and Texas. The team arrived at Yankee Stadium after dropping two of three to the Tigers, their post-season chances very much in question. Playing on the big stage before the Pinstripe Nation, the A’s battled the Yankees on even terms in the series’ first two games, both of which were decided in extra innings.

In the Friday opener, CC Sabathia and Jarod Parker locked up in a classic pitcher’s duel, Sabathia turning it over to closer Rafael Soriano in the top of the ninth with a 1-0 lead. With two outs, the bases empty and little hope left, Brandon Moss shockingly uncorked an upper-deck, game-tying homer. His heroics were short lived, however. Yankee catcher Russell Martin returned the favor in the 10th with his own majestic blow off Sean Doolittle to seal an ulcerating 2-1 defeat. Saturday’s game was even more maddening. After rallying from 4-2 and 5-4 deficits, Jonny Gomes, Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Carter launched home runs in a four-run 13th-inning blitzkrieg that gave the A’s what seemed to be a commanding 9-5 lead. Wrong. Inexplicably, the Yankees somehow tied the score with four runs of their own in the bottom half of the inning, with the ageless Raul Ibanez sending a Pat Neshek pitch into orbit for a two-run homer that sent the game into the 14th inning. Moments later, another ageless star—Ichiro Suzuki—plated the winning run when Eduardo Nunez reached base on an infield error.

A lesser team would have been devastated. Enduring their second straight extra-inning loss, the A’s entered Sunday’s finale having absorbed five losses in their last six games. They sat four games behind Texas in the AL West standings, sinking, with only 14 games remaining. And the raucous Yankee fans were not about to dial back the noise in sympathy. With an ominous four-game series in Arlington on the horizon, Oakland sent rookie A.J. Griffin to the mound in hopes of salvaging a game in the series to keep the club’s faint postseason hopes alive. The A’s, buoyed by Cliff Pennington’s two-run homer in the second inning, staked Griffin to an early 3-0 lead. However, former Athletic Nick Swisher led a four-run Yankee uprising in the fourth with a two-run clout, and the A’s advantage had melted away in a New York second. At that juncture, a betting man would have figured a Yankee series sweep to be a lock. Yet, a spark was lit in the fifth and sixth innings that would burn for the remainder of the season. The A’s rallied for single runs in both frames, and then the brilliant bullpen work of Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour slammed the lid on a remarkable 5-4 comeback win that would ignite a victory flurry down the stretch that led to a division-clinching victory over Texas on the final day of the season.

So, when you tune in tomorrow evening for the series opener at Yankee Stadium (CSN California and 95.7 FM The Game), remember that The House That Jeter Built was the scene of one of the most important wins in recent A’s history. I know I will.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT WE HONOR JACKIE ROBINSON

During the final week of Spring Training, I had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of “42,” the new Legendary Pictures/Warner Brothers movie about Jackie Robinson.  Both Chadwick Boseman (Jackie) and Harrison Ford (Dodgers’ executive Branch Rickey) were outstanding in lead roles, and the film certainly is a great reminder on why we honor the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.  This Monday night at the Coliseum, every A’s and Astros player, coach and manager will be wearing the No. 42, as we pay tribute to Robinson on the date (April 15) he first played in a Major League game back in 1947.

I can remember many years ago, while in a previous job, I accompanied former outfielder Ellis Burks to a local middle school assembly.  Burks, who was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where his family experienced the racial tensions of the 60’s, was part of a pilot program honoring Jackie Robinson which eventually was adopted by all of Major League Baseball.  Our message to these 12- and 13-year-olds was this:  Jackie Robinson is the greatest role model and hero in American sports history.  His actions both on and off the field not only changed the face of sports in this country, but it also changed the way America would view race relations and social justice.  Many people forget that Jackie was truly a lone pioneer during that time in American history.  This was eight years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat and Martin Luther King, Jr. led the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Prior to Jackie joining the Dodgers, young African American males never thought it was even in the realm of possibility that one day they could play in the Major Leagues.  They wouldn’t even allow themselves to dream it was possible.  My good friend and Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda once told me the same thing.  “Jackie wasn’t just a hero in the black community.  He was our hero too!  Until he broke the barrier, Latins like me, Roberto (Clemente) and the Alou brothers could only hope to play against Negro League players when they played winter ball on the islands.”  As a child of the 60’s, I fell in love with the game of baseball watching Orlando, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson, Elston Howard and so many other exciting stars who were people of color.  I cannot imagine what that decade would have been like without those great players.  I think also, it sheds some light on what Major League Baseball missed when a previous generation of minorities—the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell and Buck Leonard—were not allowed to play.  That all changed after a young man named Jackie Robinson, a highly-educated and multi-sport star at UCLA, agreed to accept the unenviable challenge presented by Mr. Rickey.

Later in his life—unfortunately not depicted in the movie—Jackie continued to be an advocate for racial equality and a true pioneer.  Retiring from baseball after the 1956 season, he accepted an executive position with Chock full o’Nuts, becoming the first black vice president of a major American corporation.  Later he would help found Freedom National Bank, a black-owned and operated commercial bank based in Harlem, as well as establish the Jackie Robinson Construction Company, which built housing for low-income families.  Yet, Jackie was more than a role model in business.  He also remained a social activist, serving on the board of the NAACP and supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Ironically, his final public appearance involved the Oakland A’s.  It was before Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati.  Commissioner Bowie Kuhn invited him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his Major League debut.  The white-haired Robinson, showing the ravages of several years living with diabetes, accepted a plaque and spoke before the first pitch.  “I’m going to be tremendously more pleased and proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball.”  Nine days later on Oct. 24, 1972, Jackie passed away at the young age of 53.  Two years later, the Cleveland Indians named Frank Robinson the first African American manager in Major League history.  Many other black managers have followed, including Dusty Baker, Cito Gaston, Willie Randolph, Ron Washington, and just this year, Bo Porter with the Astros.  But Robinson’s influence went beyond baseball.  Magic Johnson became a business leader in Los Angeles after his basketball career and is an investor in the Dodgers.  Colin Powell became the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later Secretary of State.   Oprah Winfrey became a media mogul and social conscience in this country.  Rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z is now part-owner of the NBA’s Nets, ironically based in the same New York borough (Brooklyn) where Jackie Robinson made history.  And, of course, the first African American president, Barack Obama, is in his second term as our nation’s leader.

I suspect Jackie Robinson is looking down on us and quite pleased with the progress we have made.  However, Jackie was not one to rest on his laurels.  I have no doubt he would still be pushing for more progress if he was here today.

Of course, if you’re an A’s fan, you also have another reason to love and cherish Jackie Robinson.  Following the 1956 season, the Dodgers traded him to the arch-rival Giants.  Robinson, facing an unimaginative horror, chose to retire instead of ever wearing the orange & black uniform.  Our kind of guy.

A’S ALREADY SHOWING QUALITY DEPTH

Prior to the season, ESPN’s baseball guru Buster Olney made a rather bold statement about the 2013 A’s.  He said Bob Melvin’s club might be the deepest in the American League.  However, if you followed the Oaklanders last season, that claim may not sound so bold.  In fact, the 2012 AL West champs were all about depth and interchangeable parts.

Now, just a week into our new season, examples of that depth have already come into play.  Let’s start with the pitching staff.  The fact that 24-year-old Dan Straily can strike out 11 batters, walk none and allow two runs in 6.2 innings Friday night in Houston but then be sent down after the game to make room for No. 5 starter Bartolo Colon kind of illustrates that point, doesn’t it?  But if you look even closer, I think it’s the depth we have in the back end of our rotation that will really serve this team well as the season continues to unfold.  With Tommy Milone (13-10, 3.74 ERA last year), A.J. Griffin (7-1, 3.06) and Colon (10-9, 3.43) as our numbers three through five starters, we figure to own a significant advantage over most teams in the league.  We saw that the first time through the rotation last week against the Mariners and Astros.  And while Brett Anderson dodged a bullet—actually two bullets—in Sunday’s start at Minute Maid Park that battered his throwing hand, if he had been deemed unfit to pitch, Straily would have been on the next plane to rejoin the team for Anderson’s next start.  You want to talk about depth?

And if we had received word that the Ragin’ Australian, Grant Balfour, needed more time to rehab his surgically-repaired knee and wouldn’t have been available to open the campaign, just think of our choices as his temporary replacement:  the right-left, flame-throwing duo of All-Star Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle, or newly-acquired 30-year-old veteran Chris Resop, a minor league closer who has pitched in 137 games for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons.  What other team in the American League has those kinds of choices?  In fact, what other team in the league was forced to send down such quality arms the likes of Jordan Norberto (4-1, 2.77 last year), Pedro Figueroa (0-0, 3.32), Mike Ekstrom (team-best 1.20 ERA in 10 spring training games) or Hideki Okajima (17-8, 3.11 ERA in 261 career games with Boston) because there was simply no room in the bullpen?

Injuries sprung up among the A’s position players in recent weeks, too, again demonstrating why A’s fans should feel good about the club’s current depth chart.  First, it was middle infielders Hiro Nakajima (hamstring) and Adam Rosales (intercostal), who were placed on the 15-day disabled list the final week of spring training.  That left the starting shortstop job to Jed Lowrie, already a proven big leaguer at the position from his days in Boston and Houston.  In the first seven games, Lowrie has done more damage at the plate than any other A’s player, leading the team in batting average (.500), RBI (6), on-base percentage (.567) and slugging percentage (1.000) and tied for the club lead in home runs (3).

Then Sunday, Gold Glove outfielder Josh Reddick decided to play bumper cars with the stadium railing down the right field line.  It was a scary moment as he was escorted off the field with his right hand held immobile.  While we’re glad to say x-rays proved negative, losing a player who led the 2012 club in home runs and RBI—even for a couple of days—is normally something that would have had a significant effect on a team’s lineup.  However, not many teams have two proven hitting outfielders in reserve the caliber of Chris Young and Seth Smith.  Young, a previous All-Star who has enjoyed three 20-homer, 20-stolen base seasons in the past with Arizona, promptly crowned Sunday’s 9-3 win over the young Astros by blasting a three-run homer in the fifth inning.  Smith, a .268 career hitter in 616 big league games and one of the better fastball hitters in the league, was another hero Sunday, scorching a two-run double in the second inning.

We saw this type of balanced attack last season, when Oakland not only had 14 walk-off wins during the regular season but 11 different players doing the honors.  But that was last year.  I don’t think anyone in their right minds would predict that many walk-off victories will come our way again this year.  However, this year’s team may actually be deeper than last season.  That should bode well as we run another marathon in 2013.  As we have already seen in the season’s first week, it can be a different player that can make the difference in any given game.

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