Though there are still eight weeks of baseball left in the 2013 season, it wouldn't be hyperbolic to say this miniseries between the Oakland Athletics and Cincinnati Reds was extremely important. After all, the A’s entered the two-game midweek matchup carrying something they haven’t had for quite some time: concern. And after losing both games to Cincinnati, that mid-level worry just ramped up a notch, as Oakland now sits alongside the Texas Rangers in first place in the American League West.
Thanks to the series sweep at the hands of the Reds, Oakland has now lost six of its past seven games, and eight of 18 since the All-Star break.
The one-time six-game cushion atop the AL West, just a mere 10 days ago, has all but disappeared. And even for a clubhouse as loose and confident as the Athletics are, the panic meter is inching into the reddest of levels.
Yes, there is a lot of baseball left to be played; but the Athletics understand the magnitude of being swept by Cincinnati. The A’s did not gain any momentum during this interleague showdown; and worse, Oakland appeared to simply not show up, looking lackluster in just about every phase of the game.
Given it was a short two-game set against the host Reds, there are some very succinct lessons the A’s learned during this series. Harsh, stark realities that now should have the team shaken. A lot. Here are five takeaways from the Athletics’ series against the Cincinnati Reds.
Baseball is quick to turn a career year into a very ordinary one. Driving along that scenic route, every ball hit finds a hole in the infield or a soft patch of grass. Then all of a sudden an unexpected hairpin turn pops out of nowhere, and you're tail-spinning toward Nowheresville.
How can a season look so promising and exciting in the first half and then take a souring detour so suddenly?
Well, Coco Crisp is having that From Dusk Till Dawn type of season. Crisp’s 2013 campaign began optimistically with such vitality and energy; but now it’s smack dab in the middle of head-scratching randomness, en route to being completely forgotten.
Crisp started out afire, batting .283 for the month of April, with a ridiculously robust .943 OPS. After a stint on the disabled list in May, his performance came back down to earth a bit; but he was still sporting a .300 batting average as of June 16. Since then, Crisp’s bat has flamed out: His batting average currently sits at .247 for the season.
Whether he’s playing through some nagging injuries, or the law of averages have caught up to his career medians, Crisp is obviously in a slump. While much of the finger-pointing has been at the gasless Yoenis Cespedeses and Josh Reddicks of the idling lineup, the piston in the A’s engine is Coco Crisp. There’s no getting around the fact that he needs to rev it up in order for Oakland to be truly running on all cylinders.
It was a short series, yes, but Crisp flopped a 1-for-9 against the Reds. For the season, in 55 games in which Crisp played and the A’s were victorious, Crisp is batting .284 with 45 runs scored. In 35 A’s losses that Crisp played in, he has a .179 batting average with seven runs scored. Seven.
To find a hot hitter in the Athletics’ otherwise anemic lineup would be like finding Waldo in a candy cane store. The similarities in each of those searches, however, would be to look for the eyeglasses.
Eric Sogard is currently Oakland’s most consistent and dangerous offensive weapon. Yes, that is both as surprising as it is absurd. Sogard is the Athletics’ hottest hitter, but it’s not by default. The 27-year-old infielder has hit safely in each of the 13 games since the All-Star break. The platooner is 18-for-47 (.383) with a .596 slugging percentage since July. Additionally, he has scored nine runs and driven in nine, along the way, earning a promotion to the No. 2 spot in the batting order on occasion. Amazingly, Sogard is the only offensive threat in the Oakland lineup.
While the Athletics’ offense has been absent for the past few weeks, it’s hard to imagine how bad it’d be without Sogard. In a lineup littered with ice-cold bats up and down the batting order, Sogard has single-handedly kept the A’s from being further humiliated during an 8-10 stretch to start the second half of the season.
With Coco Crisp struggling badly, might manager Bob Melvin daringly move Sogard to the top of the order in a huge lineup shakeup?
While nearly every other player has been moved down in the order when he’s been in the midst of a cold spell at one point or another this season, Crisp has been steadily slotted in the leadoff spot, despite tallying only 28 hits in his last 151 at-bats (.185), covering 38 games. If not leadoff, then might as well put Sogard in the cleanup spot. Something.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. The Athletics’ offense might not be desperate right now. But save batting Sogard in each of the nine spots in the order, it might be time for Melvin to do something drastic to jump-start production.
The Oakland Athletics have always prided themselves on building their team around a foundation of talented starting pitchers. This year was no different, as many around baseball believed the vaunted starting rotation with a core of youngsters Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin would parlay their division-title experience from a season ago into bigger and better things with a season apiece under their belts.
Like 2012, Oakland’s starters have overcome several bumps in the road this season. Brett Anderson has been shelved since May 1. Bartolo Colon began the season serving the remainder of his MLB-imposed suspension; and having turned 40 years old this year, he inches further over the hill. But Parker, Milone and Griffin, the next Big Three, all in their second full seasons as starters, were intended to carry the brunt of the workload. And the A’s team was supposed to rely on these pitchers’ arms to carry them back to the postseason.
So far, that has not been the case, as the Parker-Milone-Griffin trio has turned into a Medium Three.
Parker has no doubt righted his ship after a rocky 1-5 start to the season in which he carried a 7.34 ERA through seven starts. But he carries a 7-6 record to go with a 4.02 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. Meanwhile, Milone has been rocky enough (9-9 record, 4.39 ERA) that he earned a demotion to Triple-A last week. Only 11 of his 22 starts this season have been quality starts.
And that leaves Griffin and his AL-leading 28 home runs allowed. He also has been decent at times, earning 10 wins and a 3.91 ERA; but only 12 of his 23 starts have been quality starts.
With Anderson out most of the season, and the Medium Three middling between good and bad starts, Colon has clearly been the Athletics’ ace, tallying a 14-4 record, 2.75 ERA and an All-Star berth. Colon has been the model of consistency.
Until Cincinnati. The righty gave up five runs in 2.2 innings, his shortest stint of the season. The ugliest part of his line was the three bases on balls issued on top of the seven base hits by the Reds.
If the A’s are going to make it down the stretch, their rotation needs to rediscover its footing. And if the rest of the young staff, Parker, Milone and Griffin, along with rookie right-hander Dan Straily, continues to take its lumps, Colon needs to be as invincible as possible.
Right now, Colon is Oakland’s most valuable player this season. And their potential for the postseason hangs on the balance of his tremendous value.
It seems that right now, the A’s are simply not in sync. If the pitching is decent, the hitting is terrible. If the offense is clicking for one game, the defense is atrocious. Simply put, if it’s not one thing, it’s another; and that inconsistency across the board is greatly affecting Oakland, resulting in several disturbing losses mixed with a few ugly wins.
Against Cincinnati, it was a dose of ugly losses. Two underwhelming performances: A 3-1 no-show defeat on Tuesday followed by a 6-5 blemish on Wednesday, an early midday game in which were down 5-1 after three innings.
One good performance during the two games against the Reds was that of the Athletics’ bullpen. The relief corps had taken its lumps in recent weeks, but of late the unit has seemed to recompose itself. There was plenty of opportunity against Cincy, as the A’s bullpen pitched 9.1 innings in the series. A’s relievers only allowed one earned run on five hits, striking out seven.
Understandably, as bad as the Athletics are playing during their 8-10 stretch post-All-Star break, it could be worse if not for the stellar performance by their relievers.
Oakland relief pitchers have a 2.02 ERA in 49.2 innings during the second half of the season. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Pat Neshek have combined to pitch 20.2 innings in that time—they have not allowed an earned run.
With the relievers getting their collective groove back, if their starters can put up quality starts and go deep into ballgames, it will bode well for the rest of the season. That’s a big if.
Yes, the attention surrounding the A’s of late has focused on the team’s desperate need for an offensive injection. Their hitting is abominable. They are not getting on base, nor are they doing anything when they do somehow reach base.
Hitting home runs? Not really. Stealing bases? No. Taking bases on balls? Sometimes. Essentially, there’s no formula that’s working for them.
So instead of mixing and matching a boatload of slumping hitters to find some magical lineup chemistry; instead of acquiring a big bat before the trading deadline; instead of doing almost nothing save for a Alberto Callaspo trade, why not get their ace starting pitcher back to help jump-start the sluggish clubhouse?
Right now, any infusion of energy, any added pep and excitement to this ballclub could really do wonders. The Athletics are a team built around selflessness. There are no “me-first” players on this club, and they’re all anxious, eager and generally excited to root for another teammate’s performance.
That said, if Brett Anderson can come back to top form and deliver at the level everybody knows he’s capable of, it might be the type of asset and the type of productivity that could have his teammates amped and spirited during the stretch run.
Who knows? Maybe the best offensive boost will be the re-addition of their most coveted pitching weapon. Whatever the case, the Athletics are in dire need of something, anything, to bolster their confidence. Having Anderson back might just do the trick.
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