Last year the A’s stunned the Rangers by winning the AL West in a dramatic and rare, late season comeback. The Athletics, predicted by pundits to lose 100 games, were fulfilling expectations. On June 30th the As found themselves 13 games behind the first place Rangers. By September, the As were in a position to make the playoffs being only five games behind the Rangers with 10 games left to play. Well, the As did make the playoffs with just two games left in the season. That same day they found themselves one game behind the Rangers. The As swept the Rangers to get into first place for the first time in 2012, on the one day that counted, the season’s final day.
This season the race for the West is going to be close again, maybe even come down to the last day yet again. Of course 2013 won’t be quite the crazy ride that the reigning AL West Champion As gave the baseball world last year. This season the As have consistently had back-up or platoon players step up their games in the absence of a starter whether in a slump or out with an injury. They won 16 or more games in every month but July. The secret to this is that the As have depth, depth that can be very good.
Bartolo Colon, the As first half ace, has struggled since the break posting a 1-3 record and spent a stint on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left groin. He has lost his first two starts since returning to the roster, lasting only five innings in both games. This would look like bad news for the Athletics but even if Colon continues to struggle, the As other starters have definitely stepped up their games.
Dan Straily and Jarrod Parker had stellar performances of late with Parker standing out as the second half ace of the staff with a 5-0 record and a 2.89 ERA. A.J. Griffin and mid season call-up Sonny Gray have held their own in this latter half of 2013 with Griffin emerging as the As strikeout leader and Gray with the staff’s lowest ERA. Tommy Milone and Brett Anderson, who’s just off Tommy John surgery, are both solid options for starters and can provide long relief in the bullpen alongside Jerry Blevins and Dan Otereo.
All year the As bullpen has been almost unbeatable with the combination of Doolittle, Cooke and Balfour. Even though Balfour has only blown two saves this year his last few closing opportunities have been shaky, leaving his fastball up, letting men get on base and opposing teams score runs. His ERA went from 1.63 in the first half to a 4.76 in the second. So Balfour needs to get back in his groove in order for the A’s to take the division or Cooke and Doolittle will need to step up as Doolittle did in yesterday’s game against the Astros. Filling in for Balfour who threw upwards of 30 pitches the previous night’s game, Doolittle did his job, picking off the final batter and getting his first save of the season. The good news for the Athletics is that when their ace and closer struggle there are more than enough back up to pick up the slack.
One thing that the As always seem to struggle with is run support. They often have trouble hitting with runners in scoring position and leaving men stranded while hitting solo home runs to eke out wins. The As seem to either score a large number of runs (14 in a game in Detroit and 11 in a game against Texas) or they’re barely able to push across a couple of runs (like in their 3-2 loss and 2-1 win against the Astros). Star hitters like Yoenis Cespedes, who hasn’t been having his best year, need to step up the way that hitters like out- fielder/first baseman, Brandon Moss, and center fielder, Coco Crisp, have recently and the way third baseman Josh Donaldson has all year. Donaldson has a team best .297 BA. Of Cespedes, Oakland Manager Bob Melvin told San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser:
”He’s having a couple of good days and then an off day and certainly if he can string some good games together and really get on a roll, we’re going be much better for it.”
The As will have to put up offensive numbers that support their pitching staff going into these last 20 games and that means everyone will have to contribute. While good pitching usually equals a good record (to date the As are 22 games over 500), a team can’t win games on pitching alone.
Barring any new major injuries, the Athletics are basically healthy. Catcher John Jaso is out with a concussion but Oakland brought in Kurt Suzuki and now have three healthy, capable catchers in Suzuki, Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt. 2012 Gold Glove winner Josh Reddick is also out with a wrist injury that has been plaguing him all season but the A’s are covered here as well with an extra outfielder in Chris Young and Moss being able to move to right field. Even still, first base where Moss usually plays, also has two strong back- ups in powerful 6’8″ rookie Nate Freiman and defensive ace Daric Barton.
The As have stronger pitching and defense than they do offense, yet almost habitually it seems one of the players will come off the bench to get the game winning hit or insurance run to take the pressure off of their regular offensive standouts. So many Athletics players have elevated their games to compensate for their teammates’ injuries and struggles that the A’s now sit atop the division. At 22 games over .500 all the As need to do is to continue to come out of each of their final seven series winning them, including today’s game against the Astros. If the As can do that they will win the American League West for the second year in a row.