The old baseball cliche is that pennants are not won in April, but they most certainly can be lost.
In an AL West that is expected to be tight all season, the A's can not afford to continue losing games in which their starting pitching puts them in a position to win.
Friday afternoon the A's dropped another close game, 2-1, to the Minnesota Twins in the weekend series opener. With the loss Oakland is now 2-5 on the season and 4.5 games out of first place.
So far Oakland has managed to lose games due to poor defense, poor relief efforts and lack of run support.
The Athletics were unable to score more than a single run against Carl Pavano before the game was handed over to Twins closer Joe Nathan to nail down the save. The only run for Oakland came in the first inning when Daric Barton scored on a sacrifice fly by David DeJesus.
Unfortunately this was the only offensive highlight for the Athletics in the game. The A's managed only four hits against Pavano, who was roughed up in his first outing against the Toronto Blue Jays (4 innings, 6 hits, 7 earned runs, 15.75 ERA) on April 1, and one hit against Nathan.
The A's wasted a dominant performance by starting pitcher Brett Anderson, who pitched a complete game in the losing effort by the A's. He recorded seven shutout innings before Minnesota finally broke onto the scoreboard and took the lead in the eighth inning. Anderson allowed eight hits, two runs and struck out five without allowing a base-on-balls.
"You try to match their guy," Anderson told MLB.com's Jane Lee. "Pavano gave up a run in the first, but it was pitch for pitch after that. That's a credit to him, because he shut us down the rest of the way. I just wasn't able to get it done in the eighth. It's frustrating from my standpoint that I can't hold the lead."
Anderson had nothing to be frustrated with over his performance though. His outing was deserving of a victory; the Athletics need to find a way to push more runs across the plate.
"It gets frustrating," Kurt Suzuki said to Lee. "It stings a little more, because your pitcher goes out and pitches his butt off. We would love to get more runs across, but it's not happening right now."
Coco Crisp leads Athletics' regulars with a .276 batting average followed by Mark Ellis at .261. The drop-off to the next best average among the A's starters is a .026 difference (Cliff Pennington is hitting .235). The A's have three batters below .200: Hideki Matsui is at .182, while Suzuki and Kevin Kouzmanoff are both hitting .174.
The only A's player with a home run through seven games is Josh Willingham, who has two.
"As far as the offense, it's early," Oakland manager Bob Geren also told Lee. "It's obviously very, very encouraging to see the starting pitching we're getting and how deep they're going into games. They're giving us a chance to win every night. It's a good feeling. We've had the lead in just about every single game we've played in this year."
While Geren is correct that the A's have managed to start out with the lead most of the season, the problem is that the A's are finding ways to blow the lead. The defense and bullpen were the culprits in the first two series, costing Oakland wins against both the Mariners and Blue Jays. Now that the A's seemed to have corrected those problems, the offense has emerged as a problem.
The early struggles have left us with more questions than answers. Among the questions:
How long will the A's stick with Matsui at DH before turning to Chris Carter?
Matsui is a notorious slow starter throughout his career, but he is hitting below the Mendoza Line as his bat appears to have slowed down. The A's don't want to thrust Carter into the designated hitter role and waste his athleticism, but at some point they will need to address the lack of offense they are getting from their DH spot in the lineup if Matsui does not turn it around soon.
Just how short of a leash is Kevin Kouzmanoff on?
Billy Beane spent the offseason doing everything possible to replace Kouzmanoff at third base, and we are starting to see why. The A's third baseman's biggest strength was his defense—an asset he seems to have lost. Not only does Kouzmanoff have three errors in the early part of the season, he has looked completely lost at times in the field this year.
Kouzmanoff is batting below .200 and without his defense to save him, the A's could give Andy LaRoche a shot at the every day job soon.
I'm not buying that LaRoche's start at third the other day was just to give Kouzmanoff the day off. The benching came after a game in which Kouzmanoff committed a throwing error, but easily could have been charged with two additional errors in the game: a fielding error that was overturned and ruled a hit after the game, and a foul ball that he caught, but then spiked the ball as he attempted to throw it.
With some pitching depth and a couple relievers becoming excess when Andrew Bailey and Rich Harden return, the A's could once again turn to the trade market to replace Kouzmanoff at third as well if he does not turn it around.
Should Ryan Sweeney be given a chance in right field over DeJesus?
Obviously David DeJesus is the more accomplished career hitter, but Ryan Sweeney put together a very impressive spring training.
DeJesus is simply not hitting right now, as evidenced by his .217 average. Geren has stated he will give Sweeney a start soon. While Sweeney could be used to give Coco Crisp a day off in center field, he should be given the opportunity to start in right field on a regular basis if he can put up better numbers than DeJesus is currently providing Oakland.
Should Conor Jackson be given a chance at first base over Daric Barton?
This is practically a mirror image of the Sweeney/DeJesus question.
Barton is hitting .208 and has also committed three errors on the season. Conor Jackson has been productive in his limited playing time and has plenty of experience at first base from his time with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Barton is the superior defensive player, but Jackson may bring more to the table offensively at this point.
The A's will try to win the remaining two games of the series against the Twins behind Gio Gonzalez on Saturday and Brandon McCarthy on Sunday.