A's Hitting Coach Feeling the Heat ... Again

Scott SabatiniContributor IMay 13, 2009

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 10:  Matt Holliday #5 of the Oakland Athletics bats against the Toronto Blue Jays during a Major League Baseball game on May 10, 2009 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Oakland Athletics designated hitter Jack Cust knows a thing or two about hitting home runs through the thick bay air in Oakland Coliseum. Last week, he said sometimes all you can do it wait for the weather to warm up.

Perhaps he's right, as the A's relative surge in power this past week or so has come just as Oakland enjoyed sunny skies, less wind, and warmer evenings during this homestand. After showing some signs of life sprinkled with awful at bats, the A's busted loose last night on the surge of a three-run homer by Cust to crush the visiting Royals, 12-3.

The outbreak came after several A's veterans held a hitters-only meeting, no coaches allowed, before the game on Tuesday.

Now, if only they can sustain it—something the worst offense in the American League has failed to do following brief moments of offensive fireworks in the past.

The team has been shut out four times, all of which is turning up the heat on new hitting coach, Jim Skaalen.

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Earlier this week, Skaalen told beat writer Joe Stiglich that he has seen signs of progress among the A's hitters despite the lack of results. He acknowledged guys were pressing, but said the key was simply staying the course, doing the regular routines and waiting for the veterans hitters like Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, and Orlando Cabrera to hit on par with their career statistics.

But staying the course for the A's since the departure of former manager Ken Macha and his coaching staff in 2006 has meant being one of the worst offensive clubs in the league. Through more than 100 at bats for starters, this year's squad—expected to be much improved—is on par with last year's anemic bunch, all of which brings a spotlight to the one guy who's supposed to change the course, not stay with it.

Skaalen, 54, spent the previous two years as the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers, an explosive offensive club that plays in a homer-friendly stadium where the balls fly—the anti-Coliseum if you will.

But several Brewers hitters actually regressed during Skaalen's tenure, most notably Richie Weeks, who fell from a .279 average the year before Skaalen arrived to .235 and .234 in the two years Skaalen was the hitting coach. Likewise, Bill Hall fell from a career best .270 average with 35 home runs in 2006, to .254 in 2007 and .225 in 2008, hitting just 29 homers in the two years under Skaalen combined. Both batters are off to better starts in 2009.

Skaalen was fired when the team slumped badly last September.

Skaalen was surprised when he got the ax right in the middle of pennant race, but he defended his overall work, saying the team progressed in the two years under him. Yet, he also offered a similar response then to the Brewers struggles that he's now saying about the A's.

"What can you do about it?", he said about the team's slump. "I worked with them, trying to get them improve. That’s all we could do. When they step in the box, they’re on their own."

Just stay the course right? But even when the results suggest something different is needed, like the current A's lineup that has Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera, and Jason Giambi all struggling as bad as they ever had? A team with just a handful of hitters hitting better than .250 may need something more than staying the course.

Perhaps Skaalen and the hitters are starting to warm up. Perhaps its just as Cust said all along that the weather plays a bigger role than given credit for. Perhaps.

One thing is certain: Time is running out on these A's, still mired in last place with the worst offense in the league. If that course hasn't changed come July, expect the course to be radically changed from General Manager Billy Beane.

Skaalen could well be one of the targets.