Halfway to a Miracle?
Today is an uncharacteristic July 4th day off for the Oakland Athletics, so I’m still basking in the aftermath of yet another A’s victory, a satisfying 7-2 comeback and rubber match victory yesterday against the best-record-in-baseball White Sox. The Athletics have now won seven series in a row after being swept by the surprising 50-31 Washington Nationals, and the season is exactly at the halfway point. Could any fan in their right mind on May 29, after watching the Devil Rays and Indians humiliate the then 17-32 A’s, have predicted a 40-41 record on Independence Day?
For the sixth consecutive season, the Athletics are making their mid-year surge, but what makes this one so remarkable is that everyone had written off this team as “rebuilding.” Rebuilding my eye. Billy Beane doesn’t rebuild—he reloads. And what we are witnessing, on a seemingly daily basis, is nothing short of a lesson in patience, perseverance—and trust. When Beane decided it was time to unload the questionably healthy Mark Mulder and the beloved Tim Hudson, the faithful cried, “He’s thrown in the towel, that cheapskate—first Giambi, then Tejada, then Foulke, now Mulder and Hudson! Now we’ll be perennial losers, like the Pirates, or worse, the Devil Rays!” Hardly.
As we now know, those fears have been allayed, at least for the time being, and prudence dictates that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. When asked if the Athletics should even consider letting soon-to-be free agent Mark Kotsay walk, most fans would say, “Hell no!” The bottom line is that this team may be better stocked, personnel-wise, than last year’s squad was at the same time. Maybe we should take a good look at what we have, rather than what we have lost. At first base, we are better defensively and younger with Dan Johnson, who at nearly 26 shows more maturity than the average rookie. Reliable Mark Ellis, the guy you want in the middle of the infield, continues to impress coming off of a horrendous injury that wiped out his 2004 season. Today the White Sox hit two mile-high pop-ups into the sun, and Bobby Crosby smartly deferred to Ellis, who is always in the right place. His two-run single in the seventh put the icing on the cake for the win, enabling Barry Zito to remain in the game and retire Frank Thomas in the eighth, leaving the field to a standing ovation. Crosby, who despite an 0-5 day leads the team with a .325 average, has shown that he belongs, and seems up to the daunting challenge of allowing us to move on after losing Miguel Tejada. The sophomore shortstop is in a comfort zone at the plate, and today he unleashed a laser from the deep hole to get (an admittedly slow) Paul Konerko on a ball that is almost always a base hit. Eric Chavez, after a nightmare first quarter, is getting excellent at-bats, not chasing balls in the dirt or over his head, and has improved his average over 100 points while continuing his brilliant play in the field. After what seemed like a merry-go-round in the outfield, Ken Macha has decided that Bobby Kielty and Nick Swisher will get the bulk of the playing time on either side of the steady Kotsay, thus relegating the mercurial Eric Byrnes to a backup role, starting against lefties and occasionally against right-handers. Bay Area native and fan favorite Byrnes seems to have accepted his role, and if someone gets hurt or falters he is right there to step in and give it his usual 110%. Kielty has accepted the challenge, and has said that he is thrilled to get the opportunity to play almost every day for the first time in his career. Swisher is still technically a rookie, but his aggressiveness and good humor have brought a youthful swagger to a clubhouse that last year was dormant (if not dead), reeling from the departure of enthusiastic and effervescent head cheerleader Miggy. Jason Kendall may not be throwing out a lot of runners, he has no homers, and his batting average is way below his career mark, but he brings a large dose of professionalism to the park everyday, from the way he has handled the young staff to his fine situational hitting. He drove in the go-ahead run today on a groundball single through the right side, something that the other, younger hitters on the A’s have trouble doing. As the main designated hitter, Scott Hatteberg no longer must worry about his deteriorating defense, something Beane and Macha noticed and nipped in the bud before it got too embarrassing. He is the definition of the professional hitter, and DH is the perfect place for him at this stage of his career. The bench, with Marco Scutaro, (who would be starting on a lot of clubs) Adam Melheuse, Byrnes and Keith Ginter (who will probably be sent away once Erubiel Durazo returns) is solid. If this group remains together, they can pile up lots of wins. It is often said about every level of baseball, from the early little leagues all the way to the “Show”, that it’s the pitching, stupid, and indeed it has been the A’s starting pitching that has been quite a revelation. What appeared in May to be the team’s undoing has become, ironically, its strength. Staff leader Barry Zito looked like himself today, and is probably the best 5-8 hurler in baseball. His curveball yesterday was breaking about three feet, and it was only umpire Jerry Lane’s postage stamp-sized strike zone that kept Barry from a complete game. Rich Harden has rebounded from his injury and is showing the world the Cy Young-like stuff that heralded his arrival on the scene, justifying the faith that Beane put in him when he decided that Mulder and Hudson were history. Danny Haren has been a tiger lately, winning six of his last seven starts and getting out good hitters with an array of pitches. Joe Blanton, who just a month ago was on the fast track to Sacramento, has turned it around in a hurry. And young Kirk Saarloos, who no one expected to get this many starts, has pitched well in the fifth starter slot. The bullpen, touted in pre-season to be a significant upgrade over last year’s disaster, has stepped up to the task. With Justin (1.48 ERA) Duchscherer leading the charge, the A’s relievers, relieved by the starters of the pressure to pitch too many innings, have risen to the task. Fellow setup man Kiko Calero is finally getting into a comfortable zone, Ricardo Rincon has been steady (although frequently nerve-wracking), and veteran rookie Keiichi Yabu has given the team some good innings. But it is a side burned rookie from the University of Texas who has captured the imagination and fancy of East Bay fans who have pined for the last decade for a closer that reminds us of you-know-who. The injury to—and inevitable departure of—Octavio Dotel has opened the door for the precocious 21 year-old Huston Street, and he has charged through it like there is no tomorrow. A’s fans who have suffered through the likes of Jay Howell, Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch and the departure of Keith Foulke—only to see him win a World Series in Boston—are hoping that they have found the second coming of Dennis Eckersley in the person of this cocky Longhorn. Possessing a 93-95 mph fastball and a wicked slider, Street has the confidence and style that gives us hope. Lock him up, Billy. So the roster is strong, and the off-season moves so far seem to be working out. But will the A’s have enough to get into the post-season, where their dreams have been perennially shattered to dust? If the A’s continue to win an average of two out of every three games remaining (a tall order!), they will achieve 94 wins, which is probably enough to secure the wild card. Looking at the rest of the American League—and I can’t help compare this process to looking at the NBA and wondering if the Warriors have a shot next year—I see decent—not great--teams that the Athletics can pass in the standings. The division leaders seem set, what with the Angels playing the way they should (what a loaded roster!), the White Sox with all that pitching and the Red Sox with all that payroll (and Schilling coming back).
The second tier includes the Twins, the Indians, the Orioles and the Rangers, who, arguably, are all very beatable teams--and one very familiar foe—the Evil Empire. The Yankees have struggled but they are still the Yankees, and King George won’t wait until the trade deadline to make moves—he’s got his eye on anyone who can hit or throw strikes. When money is no object, everybody has their price. The Bombers would love to have Kotsay, Zito or maybe even Byrnes. Let’s hope Brian Cashman doesn’t have Billy Beane’s cell number on auto-dial (or vice-versa.)
What will it take to achieve this incredible feat, one may ask? It will take the same late-season grit, pride and determination that this team has shown every season this century—and, of course, the pitching must hold up. There is no reason the Oakland Athletics cannot make a go of it come September, or at least ruin someone else’s fall party. It’s too early to look at the schedule down the stretch, but the A’s history has shown us that it’s not about the opponents—it’s about what the team can do on the field. If they continue to play solid defense, pitch well and get timely hits, well, anything can happen.
With that in mind, let us enjoy Independence Day, and remember something that makes this country great—baseball. Let us also remind ourselves that this year’s edition of the Athletics are our team, and they are determined to prove that hope springs eternal, and that yes, we just may be halfway to a miracle. Enjoy the ride.
Oakland, July 4, 2005
by Peter Elman
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