How quickly the tides turn.
Back on April 17th, the Oakland Athletics were sitting pretty atop the American League West, sporting a gaudy 12-4 record. The Texas Rangers, meanwhile, were plugging along at a formidable clip themselves, winning nine of their first 14 games.
The early part of the 2013 campaign had the makings of another nose-to-nose seasonal battle between two ballclubs that clawed one another to the bone last season in an epic division title showdown.
One month later, however, the Rangers are continuing to flex their mighty muscles, undaunted by Oakland’s hot start. And the Athletics are the ones struggling to keep pace. Since that April 17th apex, the A’s have taken a beating physically and on the field, having gone 8-18 in the process, falling into a second-place tie with the Seattle Mariners in the AL West. Texas has opened up a seven-game lead on the A’s and looks locked in: They currently have the AL’s best record at 26-14.
This past midweek series at the Oakland Coliseum was important for both squads. The Athletics were looking to right their ship, while the Rangers were seeking a bit of revenge at the venue where the 2012 division crown slipped out of their collective gloves. Oakland took the first game of the series on Monday, but the Rangers bounced back to win the next two in decisive fashion.
Here are five things we learned about the Athletics during their series against the Texas Rangers.
Right now, all facets of the team are running on fumes. The offense has been ground to a halt after its scorching-hot start. The defense is askew with the lineup changes as a result of a spate of injuries. The starting pitching is not living up to its billing following an accelerated maturation a season ago. And now, one of the team’s more steady assets, the bullpen, has hit a rough patch.
The Texas series was just another dull example of the tough times in the ‘pen.
Tuesday night’s game was another back-and-forth duel between these two teams. The A’s had nudged ahead 4-3 in the sixth inning. Oakland manager Bob Melvin went to the team’s bread and butter to protect the lead, and Sean Doolittle did his part pitching a scoreless seventh.
Then right-hander and 2012 All-Star Ryan Cook took over. Cook allowed the tying run to score on two hits and a sacrifice fly. When the game went into overtime, A’s reliever Chris Resop gave up two solo home runs in the top of the 10th inning to send the Rangers to victory.
It was a huge momentum shift in the three-game set. The Athletics needed to win the rubber game to take the series. But after falling in extras on Tuesday, the A’s looked listless in Wednesday’s matinee.
Reliever Jesse Chavez was brought in with two men on in the fifth inning and promptly gave up a three-run jack to Nelson Cruz, upping the score to 6-1 in the Rangers’ favor. Texas went on to win with ease.
The Oakland bullpen has been inconsistent so far this season. Doolittle, Cook, Grant Balfour and Jerry Blevins have been performing admirably in general. But Chavez, Resop and Evan Scribner have all struggled more often than not. With all the other team’s cylinders not running very smoothly, the A’s need the bullpen to keep games close.
By giving up late-game home runs, the guys in the 'pen have not been doing their job very well.
After an impressive outing in his first appearance of the season as the replacement for Bartolo Colon in the starting rotation, Dan Straily has since struggled. The young righty has been called upon to fill Brett Anderson’s spot but has not taken advantage of the opportunity.
In four starts since Anderson went down, Straily has allowed 20 runs in 19.1 innings, failing to pitch past the sixth inning in each.
He has especially been having trouble with his command, issuing 12 bases on balls and hitting three batters in addition to allowing 21 hits. His earned-run average sits at an unsightly 7.27 after allowing four runs on four hits and four walks in 4.1 innings against the Rangers on Wednesday.
The 24-year-old righty is certainly still young, so the growing pains are abundant. But the A’s are hurting, and they need him now more than ever to step up his game.
He is particularly weak when hitters reach base, allowing a .308 batting average with runners on and .435 batting average with runners in scoring position. If he wants to be considered a bona fide candidate for the rotation down the road, he needs to buckle down when it matters.
Otherwise, Straily will find himself on a similar journey as back-and-forth prospect Tyson Ross, who spent several seasons splitting time between the A’s Triple-A affiliate and the majors before being traded last offseason.
What makes it even more difficult when runners reach base against Oakland is that opposing teams are running rampant against the A's. The Rangers’ Elvis Andrus is the latest player to capitalize on the Athletics’ porous run defense.
Andrus stole three of the team’s four bases in the series. A’s catcher Derek Norris did, however, throw out Ian Kinsler trying to steal in the series opener; but it marked only the sixth time in 34 tries that A’s catchers have thrown out opposing baserunners.
The Athletics currently carry the third-worst caught-stealing percentage in the AL, having allowed the third-most thefts in the league. The series against Texas further showed that a team that can run will do so with ease against the Athletics.
With the offense sputtering a bit, the A’s need to tighten up their defense in order to keep games close. That goes for shutting down opposing teams’ running games, too.
Speaking of bad defense, Jed Lowrie committed two errors during the series against Texas—one at second base (on Tuesday) and one at shortstop (Wednesday). Lowrie currently leads the league in errors with seven for the season. Additionally, his .958 fielding percentage at shortstop is last in the AL.
Fortunately for the A’s, Lowrie’s errors did not do much damage, as the Rangers only scored one unearned run (during Wednesday’s contest). Unfortunately for the A’s, it wouldn’t have mattered too much, as Oakland lost that game 6-2.
Still, Lowrie’s play in the field this season has been atrocious, and it is just a small example of how inadequate the team’s overall defense is. The Athletics have committed the third-most errors in the AL this season (27) and carry a .982 team fielding percentage. With all the shift changes and players swapping positions in the infield, the A’s need to be steady up the middle—which they are not.
Lowrie has gone from a league MVP candidate with a torrid start on offense to a defensive liability. He could have A’s fans calling for Cliff Pennington! (Note: Cliff Pennington has two errors at shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks.)
In the dramatic Athletics-Angels 19-inning marathon on April 29th, two things happened: The A’s won 9-8 to push their record to 15-12; and Coco Crisp (among others) left the game due to injury. Things have started to go downhill ever since.
No coincidence that Crisp’s injury had something to do with Oakland’s free-fall.
Since that game, when Crisp was placed on the 15-day disabled list, the Athletics have gone 5-10 in Crisp’s absence. During that stretch, the A’s offense had been stuck in the mud. The Athletics scored fewer than four runs in nine of those games. Their team batting average has plummeted to .242, and the team OPS is now ranked only 10th in the league after its blazing start to the season.
Crisp’s return to the lineup, along with a (supposedly) healthy Yoenis Cespedes, should rejuvenate the trudging offense. With players playing out of position in the field and in the batting order, order is now restored with Oakland’s leading man back atop the lineup. Athletics leadoff hitters not named Crisp are batting .246 for the season, so some consistency up top would be welcomed for the staggering A’s offense.
Here’s hoping the A’s center fielder is healthy and back to his crisp, fresh self so that the Athletics can restore order offensively throughout the lineup and defensively in the outfield.
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