Sunday, September 28, 2014

Exhale. And Now, Oaktober?

They had to do it and they did. Despite all the recent frustration and ineptitude and heartache, and despite going an embarrassing 16-30 since August 10, Oakland's 4-0 win over the Texas Rangers clinched a postseason berth on the regular season's last day.

After 162 games, fifty-one series, eleven road trips, and eleven home stands over twenty-six grueling weeks, the A's today grabbed the American League's second and last wild-card spot. They face the Royals in Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium on Tuesday evening; the winner goes on to face the Angels in a best-of-five division series that begins on Thursday.

Sonny Gray bookended the season in impressive fashion. Back on opening day
doesn't March 31 seem like it belongs to another era? Gray threw six scoreless innings. On Sunday, he allowed just six hits en route to a complete-game shutout. That means at least two things: the A's can feel good about (finally) doing everything right in a decisive, lopsided win; and manager Bob Melvin can draw upon a rested bullpen in Kansas City.

And then there's the fear factor, or rather the absence of one, perhaps, beginning today. The A's no longer have to fear a humiliating collapse. All signs pointed toward a gigantic, unprecedented late-season swoon, but Melvin and his men gutted it out and persevered. The process was excruciating and often dispiriting, but that particular ordeal is over, and the A's are, and can proudly think of themselves as, a playoff team. Now the page turns and a new kind of season begins
albeit one that hinges on Tuesday's all-important showdown.

Further thoughts:

* Complain all you like about the one-game wild-card playoff, but the fact remains: if the pre-2012 wild-card system were still operative, Oakland's season would have ended today. (Back then, only one wild-card team from each league advanced to the postseason.)

* The A's won't have to square off against the Detroit Tigers, who have eliminated the A's from the postseason each of the past two seasons, until (potentially) the ALCS. That's got to be a welcome change. Time to let some other club – i.e., the Orioles
try to figure out that pitching staff.

* The flight from the Arlington area of Texas to Kansas City is only ninety minutes, and the two cities are in the same (Central) time zone. So the A's don't have to deal with a long flight or jet lag. Every little thing counts.

* Why does it always seem like AL clubs get less rest than their NL counterparts in the postseason? The NL wild-card game won't be held until Wednesday. Oakland's Josh Donaldson, for one, certainly could have used that extra day's rest.

* Jon Lester, the Athletics' glittering if controversial mid-season acquisition, starts on Tuesday. He'll have more of an impact on that game than Cespedes, if he were still around, would have. While I don't think a dominating performance by Lester will move fans who hated the trade to suddenly embrace it, it will no doubt quiet the naysayers.

* James Shields, the Royal's scheduled starter, is a right-hander. The A's have not fared well against left-handed pitching. Against Shields the A's can and will play their bevy of left-handed sluggers: Adam Dunn, Brandon Moss, Stephen Vogt, and the red-hot Josh Reddick.

Posted by C.S. Soong

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

A's Struggles; Fuld's Approach

With today's loss to the Angels, Oakland has lost 14 of 22 games in September. Since August 10, the A's have gone 14-28; they've won a grand total of two series since August 28. So where's the turnaround we've all been expecting for the last month? Time is running short -- and fortunately, it's quite a bit shorter for the Seattle Mariners, who've lost five straight and have a lot of ground (three games) to make up in a mere four days.

Sam Fuld is an intriguing character; he's one of two Stanford alums (the other being Jed Lowry) and one of two Jewish players (Nate Freiman is the other) on the A's roster. And, oh yeah, he's a type 1 diabetic. While Fuld is hitting only .178 this month, he's driven in ten runs, and he's made a number of fine plays in the field. After Fuld spoke with me recently in the A's clubhouse, I put together this report (press the play button):

Posted by C.S. Soong

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Eye on Jason Hammel

Just returned from the Coliseum, where the Oakland A's were thumped, and swept, by the cellar-dwelling Texas Rangers. I tweeted extensively about the game (a 7-2 loss) here:

Feel free to peruse that page; I won't rehash(tag) my game-time observations here. Needless to say, the negatives far outweighed the positives. But there were, in fact, a couple positives: Sam Fuld smacked a double and a triple and drove in two runs; and Jason Hammel, who will miss his next start because he's reportedly leaving the team today to attend the birth of his second child, pitched three scoreless innings of relief.

Hammel, who Oakland acquired with Jeff Samardzija back on July 4, is an interesting story. In his first four games with the A's, Hammel's ERA was a surprising, and unsightly, 9.53. And then, as July turned into August, Hammel turned into the pitcher the A's thought they were getting. Over his next seven starts, his ERA was 2.81, and although he went 2-2 in those seven games, he pitched well enough to win five of them. My latest "Eye on the A's" report features Jason Hammel; just click the play button below:

Posted by C.S. Soong

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Something To Build On

The A's are on a roll.

True, it's not much of one, but the last time the A's won two games in a row was on August 22-23, so you take what you can get, and try to build on it. It's interesting what back-to-back wins can do: in Oakland's case, they're now a respectable 3-3 in their last six contests.

Now a mere thirteen games remain; nine are at home and ten are against last-place clubs (Texas and the Phillies). And so, despite a 12-17 August – didn't it seem much worse and more tortuous than that? – and a September that, until this series up at Safeco, gestured toward the consummation of a monumental second-half collapse, the A's are well-positioned to make the playoffs.

It is, of course, a tremendous comedown, from boasting the majors' best win-loss record for 58 straight days (June 18 to August 15) to trailing the Angels by ten games and having to scratch and claw to qualify for the one-and-done wild-card playoff. Most irksome of all, to this observer, was Oakland's habit of losing one-run decisions, eight of nine to be exact before the A's prevailed 3-2 yesterday in ten innings. (I had a strong feeling the A's would win that game. It was time, I reckoned, that the baseball gods would apprehend the patent injustice of having the A's on the short end of so freakin' many close games.)

Brandon Moss hit a ball into the right-field stands in the seventh inning of today's game. It was his first homer in forty games. Through July 24, Moss was on pace to hit 37 homers; since July 20, his two dingers work out to a rate of 6.3 over 162 games. And yet Moss's slugging percentage (.444) was second-best among the nine Athletics who started (and finished) today's game. Weird, no? It attests to what's been obvious: the lack of power up and down the A's lineup since, well, since Beane dealt Cespedes.

Posted by C.S. Soong

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Two Dingers Are Better Than One

What's new? Certainly not Felix Hernandez pitching Seattle to a victory over the Oakland A's. The 28-year-old Venezuelan is dinero at the Coliseum: the last time he took a losing decision in Oakland was and I find this both astonishing and deeply disturbing – September 19, 2008. Forget Lester and Samardzija; if the A's can somehow lure King Felix away from the Mariners, they could apparently cakewalk their way to a title. And, oh yeah, the A's lost today's game 2-1.

Much of the proceedings can be boiled down to a three-minute, three-pitch sequence in the seventh inning. With the up-till-then brilliant Jon Lester on the mound, the sequence went as follows: home run to right (by Kyle Seager); strike (to Corey Hart); home run to left (by Hart). A one-run deficit was thereby turned into a 2-1 lead, which held. Three minutes can ruin your entire day – or at least sully a key three-game September series.

The pitch to Hart didn't look bad; it was low and away. After the game, A's catcher Derek Norris said, “I think [Hart] just kind of guessed, because he hadn't really looked good all day long, and he just swung at a spot and made contact." Adam Dunn made good contact in the fourth, launching his second round-tripper in three days, his first three days with the Athletics.

Jed Lowrie, in his third game back from a stint on the DL with a fractured finger, went one for three with an error. I recently spoke with the A's shortstop and prepared this report:

Posted by C.S. Soong