2012 Oakland A's Might Just Win the Pennant
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In March of this year my nine and 11 year old sons said to me, “Dad, we think the A’s are gonna be pretty good this year.” I smiled at the innocence of youth and thought to myself that the national pundits might know a little more than a couple of kids.
A mathematician from NJIT used carefully constructed algorithms and thoughtful mathematical theories to predict a 68-94 record. National scribes from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and others predicted no better than a third place finish for the Green and Gold.
Even as recently as last Monday, the team with the fourth-best record in baseball (76-57) was ranked a lowly 17th in Sports Illustrated’s Power Rankings, behind such teams as the Phillies (64-70), the Diamondbacks (66-69) and the Red Sox (62-73)—who they just swept out of town and took 8 of 9 games from this season.
So obviously all of these experts knew more than two kids with a burning passion for baseball and an unquenchable optimistic spirit. Right? Maybe not, as it turns out.
Oakland’s remaining schedule is formidable to say the least. Of their 29 remaining games, 23 are against teams with winning records. Every team left save for the streaking Mariners is battling for a Division crown or Wild Card opportunity.
So in this final month what do the A’s have to get done to make sure they remain standing at the end?
King Felix and the Mariners Loom As A Trap
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The A’s have six games left against the Mariners, including three at home to close the season.
As the only remaining opponent without a playoff spot to play for, the Mariners games will be critical to success in September. The pressure of facing the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers and Orioles could make the Seattle series seem like a weekend off but that would be a huge mistake.
Seattle is 12-6 over their last eighteen games and since the trade of Ichiro they’ve used solid starting pitching to play the role of spoiler. Anything less than four wins out of six against Seattle could be crippling.
A's Starters Have Been Solid All Season, Leading the AL with 76 Quality Starts This Season
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The A’s starting staff hasn’t missed a beat since the 50-game suspension of Bartolo Colon was handed down two weeks ago.
Brandon McCarthy has come back from chronic shoulder issues to provide a steadying force to the starting rotation. Most importantly, Brett Anderson has returned from Tommy John surgery looking like the top of the rotation pitcher he did before he left. His first three starts have been breathtaking and if there was a one-game playoff tomorrow you’d have to say he’d be the choice to take the bump.
Behind those two veterans is a field of rookies who have been at times maddening and exhilarating. Tommy Milone seems back on track, AJ Griffin has returned from his time on the DL with a sharp outing and Jarrod Parker has thrown back-to-back decent starts after his rough patch.
Nevertheless, the looming questions are legion. Can McCarthy’s shoulder hold out? Will Anderson tire quickly after not throwing for a year? Are the rookies able to give quality starts now that they’re in uncharted waters in innings pitched and pressure situations?
These are all legitimate issues to ponder and for the A’s to get to the promised land the answer to most of them had better be positive.
But Close Stronger
Balfour Has Been Steady Since His Return to the Closer Spot
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On again, off again closer Grant Balfour has been solid since his return to the role vacated by Ryan Cook. Likewise, Cook has found his footing in the right handed set up role.
Behind Balfour there are a lot of young arms that continue to contribute on a nightly basis. Cook and Jeremy Blevins have been reliable eighth inning options. Sean Doolittle has been a revelation as a power left handed arm and the addition of Orioles castoff Pat Neshek has given the Athletics another uncomfortable at-bat guy out of the pen—think a more upright Chad Bradford.
This group will be relied on to get quality outs in the middle of a pennant race. How will Doolittle respond when he needs to get Curtis Granderson out in the eighth inning of a tie game at Yankee Stadium? Not even Sean knows the answer to that. Behind Balfour there is precious little pennant experience.
The pessimist would say that they will fold under the intense pressure of must-win baseball. The optimist might counter that they’re too young to feel pressure. The realist will tell you to sit tight and wait. You’ll have your answer shortly.
Know Your Role
Chris Carter & Brandon Moss Have Combined To Hit 28 HRs
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No team in baseball—and perhaps no team in recent memory—has used more platoons than the 2012 Oakland Athletics.
Brandon Moss and Chris Carter have split time at first base. Josh Donaldson and Brandon Inge (until his injury Friday night) shared space at third. Adam Rosales, Cliff Pennington and Stephen Drew have rotated through the middle infield, with Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes providing a lefty/righty DH combo.
You would think that all these players splitting all these innings would lead to bruised egos and not-so-subtle griping. But this cast of characters has remained steadfast in their commitment to “team first” baseball.
That selflessness will have to continue through September if they want to play in October. In particular, Smith, Gomes and Moss will have to keep finding ways to stay hot in limited at-bats. Carter has shown he’s ready for the everyday first basemen's job now which will keep Moss relegated to spot starts and pinch hitting opportunities.
But now’s not the time to sulk as they’ll need all three of these players to continue to contribute.
Chief Pie-Thrower Josh Reddick Gets A Taste of His Own Medicine
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Character is a funny thing. Players like Brandon Inge set the tone with mohawks and doing the Bernie. He’s already announced that after his surgery next week he’ll be back in uniform and in the dugout to root on his mates. Josh Reddick is the irascible youngster that admits he swings too hard and doesn’t mind throwing on a Spiderman costume to keep the clubhouse light. The A’s will have to continue to find ways to keep things fresh.
This past weekend's series against the Boston Red Sox saw the Petaluma Little League team in the house to rave reviews and standing ovations and character actor Terry Kiser lead 20,000+ in a roof raising “Bernie” dance. Here’s hoping there are more surprises and light moments in the final three weeks as staying loose will be a key piece to Oakland’s success.
In Bo-Mel We Trust...
Bob Melvin: 2012 Manager of the Year?
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Bob Melvin should be the run away winner of the American League Manager of the Year award. No one has motivated more, and no manager in baseball commands more respect from his players than Bo-Mel.
Its common to say of a manager that he “pushes all the right buttons” but that’s a disservice to the players who still need to go perform. What you can say is that Melvin has put his players in a position to thrive by maximizing their opportunities. Coco Crisp has been the A’s toughest out since his return to center field. Reddick responded positively to moving from the three-hole to sixth in the order (and now back to third). As we mentioned above, the countless platoons have all paid off in spades.
Melvin is a veteran of playoff hunts as a manager and player. His steadying leadership will provide balance to the youth up and down his roster.
But in Billy We Bow!!!
Other GMs Might Want To Stop Taking His Calls
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OK I give up. He’s not human.
He’s some sort of cyborg created in a lab somewhere in the Silicon Valley with a micro processor for a brain and the steely nerves of a Texas Hold ‘Em poker player.
Forget Sleepy Floyd, Billy Beane is Superman.
He traded Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey for Tommy Milone, Derrick Norris, Jarrod Parker, Ryan Cook, Collin Cowgill and Josh Reddick.
I went to public school but if my math is correct that’s three guys for six quality major leaguers including an all-star closer, two young starters, a starting catcher and the team’s most productive hitter this year. Figure that there are four more players in the minors acquired in those trades (including the highly touted Brad Peacock) that could have an impact as soon as next year and that’s a steal in anyone’s book.
Add to that the signings of Brandon Moss, Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes and the work done by Beane has been nothing short of amazing. If he’s not Executive of the Year it will just be a case petty jealousy by his peers. It’s a wonder that any of them take his calls at this point.
The A’s continue to disappoint critics and thrill fans. Even a disappointing September won’t be enough to ruin this magical summer, and if the A’s can continue to ride their current wave it will be the rest of the American League that will be disappointed.