Oakland A's: 5 Things to Look for in Upcoming Series vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Nathaniel Jue@nathanieljueSenior Writer IIApril 19, 2013

Oakland A's: 5 Things to Look for in Upcoming Series vs. Tampa Bay Rays

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    The Oakland Athletics are the best team in the American League. At least, according to their 12-4 record they are. With an MLB-best 96 runs scored, they’ve proven to be quite difficult to beat this young season. Or that it’s certainly hard to contain them for very long.

    Still, some might look at Oakland’s record with caution, considering the division-champion A’s have played—and beat—the Houston Astros six times already. Remember, this is an Astros squad that lost over 100 games in both 2012 and 2011, so the matchup appears to be a bit skewed in Oakland’s favor.

    But, in sports, anything can happen on any given day. And even the Harvards beat the New Mexicos when they're "not supposed to." Good teams beat the opponents they should beat—that’s how they become great teams.

    Which makes the Athletics’ upcoming series versus the Tampa Bay Rays this weekend a bit confounding and hard to predict. Specifically because many baseball experts believe the Rays to be a playoff-bound team.

    Thirty-three ESPN.com MLB contributors prognosticated that the Rays would make the playoffs: 20 chose them to win the AL East; seven had them going to the World Series; two selected them to win it all.

    However, so far this season, the Rays are not meeting expectations and are sitting alone at the bottom of their division with a 5-9 record. Tampa Bay is obviously a talented team—evidently, some would say a championship-caliber one.

    This weekend’s bout with the Athletics was to be a great test for both squads, with two playoff teams from a season ago going head-to-head early in the season.

    Can Tampa Bay rise up to the challenge and slow down the red-hot A’s? Can the Rays reach their potential? Or will the A’s continue their torrid streak, proving they deserve to be in the championship conversation?

    Here are five things to look for in this weekend’s three-game set between the A’s and Rays.

First Versus Worst

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    More than anything, this series between the Athletics and Rays will highlight two team offenses that are experiencing very different levels of success.

    The A’s come to Tampa Bay toting the highest-scoring offense in the AL. They rank first in the league in runs scored, doubles, home runs, extra-base hits, total bases, runs batted in, on-base percentage, OPS, bases on balls and stolen bases. Amazing.

    Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum are the struggling Rays, who rank last in the league in runs scored. The A’s have scored more than twice as many runs as the Rays! A closer look explains how they are so poor offensively:

    -       Last in hitting, with a moribund .212 batting average

    -       Fewest extra-base hits (30)

    -       Last in slugging percentage (.324)

    -       .192 batting average with runners in scoring position

    -       .183 batting average on the road

    No matter how you dissect it, the Rays’ bats are frozen solid. Matt Joyce (.190 batting average), Yunel Escobar (.104) and Sam Fuld (.080) certainly aren’t helping matters. And only three Rays' hitters have batting averages above .250.

    Judging solely on the offensive rankings, this could be a complete demolition by Oakland. The Rays have scored more than four runs in a game seven times this season. The A’s have scored more than four runs in an inning seven times this season.

    Can Tampa Bay stop the A’s? Will the Rays score any runs against Oakland? It should be interesting either way.

Can Jarrod Parker Get on Track?

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    One benefit of having otherworldly offensive production is that it can mask a team’s flaws. In the case of the Athletics, the major wound in their remarkable season thus far is the performance of starting pitcher Jarrod Parker.

    Coming off an impressive rookie season in 2012, Parker was thought to be the next Oakland A’s ace for a franchise that has a long history of great starting pitchers.

    He finished last year ranked 11th in the AL in ERA (3.47), 16th in WHIP (1.26) and tied for 10th in pitcher’s WAR (3.7). Not bad for a 23-year-old in his first full season as a starter, in a new league to boot.

    Unfortunately, the sophomore slump has proven to be a real issue for Parker this season, one that apparently has struck him quite early in 2013. Through three starts, Parker has a 0-2 record with a ghastly 10.80 ERA, allowing 23 hits and eight walks in only 11.2 innings.

    A simple case of a slow start? Is this just a minor bad stretch for the youngster? Or is this the beginning of a serious problem for the A’s staff?

    Parker takes the hill against the Rays on Saturday night, opposed by Tampa Bay right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (0-1, 4.91 ERA).

    The good news is that Parker will be facing the league’s aforementioned worst offense. Maybe this will be just what the doctor ordered to cure Parker’s woes this season. Conversely, the Rays might be licking their chops at the sight of a pitcher with an opponents’ batting average of .426.

Brett Anderson Will Get Back on Track

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    Last Saturday’s outing against the Detroit Tigers, a 7-3 loss, is one that Brett Anderson would love to forget. Quickly.

    The young left-hander was not sharp, as the powerful Tigers' bats were on display, mashing three home runs in 5.2 innings. The seven earned runs allowed shot Anderson’s ERA up from 1.38 to 4.34.

    He looks to get back on track against a Tampa Bay club that has had little success against him in his brief career. Anderson carries a 1-0 record in three starts versus the Rays, with a 2.12 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 16 strikeouts in 17 innings. In two career starts at Tropicana Field, he has a 1.80 ERA and a .189 opponents’ batting average.

    Look for Anderson to further weaken the Rays’ lineup, which has not hit a home run against lefties in 109 at-bats this season.

Evan Longoria: Face of Rays Franchise

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    A quick glance-over of the Tampa Bay roster reveals it is somewhat of a wonder how so many baseball analysts could consider them to be title contenders. Some would argue that the lineup itself reflects how poor their offensive results have been, considering there are few recognizable names that opposing pitchers would actually fear.

    Gone is outfielder B.J. Upton, who signed with the Atlanta Braves this past offseason. That leaves Ben Zobrist and former All-Star Evan Longoria as the only players left from the franchise’s 2008 World Series roster. That season was Longoria’s first in the big leagues, and since then he has collected Rookie of the Year, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards and All-Star selections. But 27-year-old has been slowed down recently, missing 117 games combined over the past two seasons.

    When he has been healthy, Longoria has proven to be one of the best not only at his position but also in all of the AL. Given his talent level and on-field accomplishments in his still-young career, Longoria will be tasked to carry the workload this season, particularly at the plate, where the Rays have already showed early signs of offensive malaise. He enters the A’s series sporting a .292 batting average with two home runs and six runs batted in. Unfortunately for him, A’s pitchers have had his number over the years. For his career, Longoria is batting only .229 in 35 games against Oakland.

    Longoria will be the lone star shining in the otherwise dim Tampa Bay lineup. The Rays definite believe in his ability, signing him to a $100 million extension this past offseason, securing him under contract until the 2022 season and making him the face of the franchise for many years to come.

The Athletics Continue Road Dominance

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    Winning away from home isn’t supposed to be easy, and most teams are satisfied with breaking even on any given road trip. But the A’s are no ordinary ballclub in 2013.

    Contributing to their dominant season thus far is the team’s 6-0 road record, the only undefeated mark in the AL. Having previously swept both the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Angels, the Athletics look to continue their road success against the Rays, who own a 3-3 record as hosts this season.

    The A’s have actually found playing in Tampa Bay to be not that difficult over the past two years, taking two series at Tropicana Field in 2012 and one in 2011. Can the Athletics continue this recent trend against a struggling Rays club this weekend? Oakland arrives in Tampa Bay with a .326 road batting average, with 13 home runs and an obnoxious .567 slugging percentage.

    Odds should be in the A’s' favor to take this series.

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