Last Thursday, the Oakland Athletics marched into Chicago as the hottest team in the American League. The red-hot A’s had won 16 of their previous 19 games entering a four-game set against the White Sox, a team that was swept by the Athletics in Oakland the week prior. But somehow, Chicago’s famous cold wind knocked the Athletics on their keisters, as the two teams split the series, with the host winning the final two contests over the weekend.
The two-game losing streak does not dismay the confident Athletics. More, it speaks to how underrated—and underachieving—the White Sox are as a team. Chicago is not as terrible as its seven-games-under-.500 record, last-place standing indicates. Oakland was lucky to squeak by the first two games of the series; otherwise the White Sox could have come away with a mighty four-game sweep themselves.
As it stands now, Oakland is now 6-0-2 in its last eight series and has whittled away at the deficit in the American League West to half a game, following the Texas Rangers’ victory on Sunday. (The A’s briefly held a half-game lead of their own over the weekend.) So despite a somewhat disappointing series split with the last-place Sox, the Athletics should not be discouraged in any way.
Still, as with every series, there are some things that we learned. Here are five lessons from Oakland’s four-game set against Chicago.
A lot has been said over the past 48 hours about Sunday’s matchup being Oakland’s 17th game in 17 days. Two-and-a-half weeks of nonstop baseball that started with a three-game home series against the Kansas City Royals on May 17. Much attention has been made about the team being tired as a result of this exhausting run, even suggesting that the players’ tanks are simply empty.
This was evident throughout the series, as the A’s offense whispered its way through four games, finishing the series a combined 24-for-132 (.182 batting average), scoring 12 runs. A telltale sign of tired concentration is the fact they only managed six bases on balls in four games. That listlessness may have contributed to their lethargic performances in both Saturday and Sunday’s games.
If indeed the case, that should be considered a cardinal no-no when it comes to team excuses. Especially for the A’s. Every team has its own grueling stretch in the schedule, and Oakland’s wasn’t exactly daunting. After their home series against Kansas City, the A’s played two road series against the Rangers and the Astros—both in Texas, so not an arduous trek. They returned to the Bay Area for a home-and-home set against the San Francisco Giants—a mere 17-mile separation between ballparks. Following a three-game home series against the White Sox, the A’s made a Midwest road trip to Milwaukee to face the Brewers before finishing in Chicago to face the Sox again.
It doesn’t seem like that taxing of a run. But 17 games in 17 days is still not an easy stint for any MLB team. And yet it should be for the Athletics.
For a team that is constructed solely on the principles of depth and versatility, physical and mental fatigue and weariness are not supposed to be factors. The whole foundation for the ballclub’s success is having adequate talent to offset the rigors of a long season. Why else would a team hold lefty-righty platoons at nearly five positions on the field (including designated hitter) and carry six players who can play the outfield and three who can play catcher? A roster with that much multifaceted flexibility is supposed be immune to tiredness.
At least that’s what the makeup of Oakland’s clubhouse tells us.
Additionally, fatigue is a weak alibi during the team’s Chicago series because the A’s had just faced three straight right-handed starting pitchers in their previous series against the Brewers. Oakland’s righty hitters should have been rested and ready to face Chicago’s four consecutive left-handed starters, after essentially sitting out the Milwaukee series.
The Athletics certainly could use and do need a day off—there’s no mistaking that. But exhaustion isn’t the reason.
What the series further highlighted was the fact that the White Sox are not as bad as their record might suggest. At 27-34, Chicago is in the AL Central cellar; but it owns a 15-13 record at home (the same home record as the Baltimore Orioles). So to see the White Sox split a home series—even against a playoff-caliber team like the A’s—is not that surprising.
Chicago has some pieces that should make it a formidable team; and it starts with the pitching staff. The White Sox currently rank sixth in the AL in team ERA (3.76). Their starters’ ERA is 3.68, fourth-best in the league. Amazingly, the team’s ERA at U.S. Cellular Field is a stellar 3.10, the second-best mark in the AL. Thus, it wasn’t shocking that the A’s could not get their offense going during their visit to Chicago.
Pitching is key to Chicago’s success; and this series split against Oakland could be a takeoff point for the White Sox. Their starters pitched strongly against the A’s, with Jose Quintana, Chris Sale, John Danks and Hector Santiago each going at least six innings in their respective starts—providing some much-needed relief for their relievers. As a whole, Chicago limited Oakland’s hitters to 24 hits and six walks.
That’s not to say the White Sox lit up the scoreboard offensively themselves. For the series, Chicago batted .220, managed nine bases on balls and score only 15 runs. The two teams obviously relied heavily on pitching and defense. Both the A’s and White Sox matched up well and were fortunate to have walked away with two wins each.
Yes, Chicago’s pitching is pretty darn good. Save for allowing a 10th-inning game-winning home run in Thursday’s loss and a late-inning grand slam in Friday’s defeat, the White Sox southpaws nearly shut down the A’s offense completely. Which was not supposed to be the case.
Facing four consecutive lefties, Oakland’s right-handed hitters were intended to do some damage. The hope was that the consistent playing time would jump-start the production of some of the struggling A’s bats—specifically that of outfielder Chris Young. Unfortunately, that was not the case.
Young came into the series with Chicago with a .187 batting average. So, was a flurry of lefties was supposed to turn his season around? Well, he ended the series playing in three of the four games; he finished 0-for-10 with one walk and four strikeouts. His batting average now sits at .174.
When the A’s brought in the veteran outfielder to provide insurance for the oft-injured Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes, many thought it was another solid move by general manager Billy Beane. Adding major-league depth by acquiring an outfielder who had started nearly 900 games in his career and could complement Josh Reddick’s left-handed bat was bold and brilliant. Alas, it hasn’t been a good result so far this season, as Young has looked old and ragged during a yearlong slump.
Young’s horrid performance is magnified by the inability of Reddick to match last season’s success. Having two outfielders both hitting under .200 is an ugly sight. This makes it nearly impossible to move either of them before the trading deadline next month. Reddick is a fan favorite and clubhouse leader with a tremendous outfield arm, so the more likely candidate to be traded is Young. But what is his value, really?
Manager Bob Melvin will certainly support Young and toss him out there like he’s supposed to against left-handers. But to be sure, if Oakland wants to be a realistic threat to repeat as AL West champs, Young has either got to go or see a significant reduction in his role as a platoon player.
Too bad Michael Taylor seems overwhelmed by MLB pitching. Does that mean Michael Choice will be called up before the trading deadline? Choice is hitting .293 at Triple-A Sacramento, with 19 extra-base hits and 46 runs batted in. If Young wants to stay around, he needs to step it up. The series versus Chicago was not a good sign.
Speaking of necessary upgrades, what should the A’s do with Japanese free-agent acquisition Hiro Nakajima, currently biding his time in Triple-A with the Sacramento River Cats? The 30-year-old Nakajima is familiarizing himself with American soil and pitching, and is batting .304 in 25 games since starting the season on the disabled list with a hamstring strain.
One of the major concerns about Nakajima in spring training was his major-league defense at the shortstop position. In Sacramento, Nakajima has committed three errors at shortstop; but he has been seeing playing time at both third base and second base, too.
Is his bat warm enough to finally warrant a promotion? Will his spotty defense allow him to realize his goal of reaching the majors, after signing with the A’s during the winter having played eight seasons in Japan?
Oakland could use some middle infield consistency. Platooning Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales isn’t exactly adding fear in the A’s lineup. Moreover, Sogard and Rosales aren’t even playing the same position. When Oakland faces a left-handed pitcher, Bob Melvin uses Rosales at shortstop and has Jed Lowrie at second base. When the A’s face a righty starter, Lowrie moves back to shortstop and Sogard mans second base. It’s an awkward platoon, for sure.
But would Nakajima provide consistency? And which position would he play? The A’s have committed 10 errors on the season at short—second-worst in the league. So far, Nakajima hasn’t proved he can improve that rate. But his offense would definitely be an upgrade. Presently, Sogard totes a .259 batting average, with no home runs and only eight extra-base hits. On the other hand, Rosales packs more punch, with four home runs but a sad .219 batting average. What to do, what to do?
With any luck, and with continued quality production in Sacramento, Nakajima will finally be brought up to spell either Sogard or Rosales. Especially if the bottom of the A’s batting order—Chris Young, Brandon Moss, Josh Reddick, Derek Norris, et al—continue to struggle at the plate. When Oakland’s top hitters are having a rough go of it, it needs a juice boost from an unlikely source. Nakajima could be that boost.
Do you hate when you turn the radio station channel and you hear that annoying Top-40 tune again? Lately, that irritating ditty for Oakland A’s fans is Sean Doolittle’s performance on the mound.
To repeat the pesky refrain again, Doolittle was a dominating force out of the Oakland bullpen for much of the first two months of the season. But recently his overachievements have caught up to him. However, it isn’t the fact that he has struggled over that past couple of weeks—it’s that he’s done so mightily and rather easily.
Over his past five appearances—including two during the White Sox series—Doolittle has given up 10 earned runs in 3.2 innings. His ERA has swelled from 0.78 to 4.05. In Saturday’s contest, Doolittle gave up three runs on three hits, including a home run. During this stretch he has blown one save and picked up the loss in another; and though he wasn’t credited with a blown save during a 4-3 loss to the Brewers last Tuesday, he was responsible for giving up a three-run lead by allowing three runs to score under his watch.
Yes, all players go through tough patches, and Doolittle is not immune to hardships throughout the course of a season. Bob Melvin needs to tone back Doolittle’s responsibilities and put the youngster in less pressure-packed situations. After all, isn’t that what having the veteran lefty Hideki Okajima is for? Okajima did not appear in the Chicago series and hasn’t seen game action since last Monday’s 10-2 blowout of the Brewers.
Naturally, Melvin is confident in Doolittle and wants to see his reliever get back on track. But the skipper needs to have confidence in Okajima, too, and use him until Doolittle regains his stuff.
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