WORLD SERIES OF THE WEEK: Rangers at Athletics

WESTERN SIZZLIN'

by Steven GoldmanOn April 17, the A’s completed a three-game sweep of the Astros. Through 16 games they were a terrific 12-4. Since then, the wheels have come off in a big way: They were averaging 3.7 runs allowed per nine innings; since it has been 5.4. They were hitting .269/.354/.464, averaging an even six runs scored a game; since, they’ve hit .223/.313/.349 and scored a fraction under four.

Meanwhile, the Rangers have been cooking along. At 24-13, they already lead the AL West by six games. We’re not quite a quarter of the way through the season, but think about what a six-game lead means: The Rangers are on a pace for 105 wins.

If they keep that up, it goes without saying that no one is catching them; for the A’s to pass them, they would have to play at a .707 pace the rest of the way.

But say the Rangers go into a major slump and somehow win only 90 games. Then the A’s would have to play at a .585 pace, equivalent to 95 wins over a full season. Stranger things have happened, but it’s a tall order -- take the Astros out of the A’s’ record and they’ve gone 13-20 (the Rangers have also played six games against the Astros; in all other games they’re 19-12).

Incredibly enough, the Rangers could be doing better in some aspects of their game. The offense has yet to hit on all cylinders. Adrian Beltre, an MVP candidate last fall, hit only .222/.280/.424 in April and has only just gotten his bat going; the catchers haven’t hit (and A.J. Pierzynski, their best hope for offense at the position is on the disabled list); Elvis Andrus responded to his April contract extension with a 608 OPS that month -- like Beltre, he’s only just started to hit.

Moreover, the post-Hamilton outfield has been a bit wanting: left fielders have combined to hit .225/.287/.442, with David Murphy failing to hit .180 in April, and the center-field combo has hit only .241/.323/.371, though like most Rangers, Leonys Martin has turned it on lately -- must be something about running into the Astros at the right time.

Of course, as long as the Rangers’ pitching staff continues to pitch as well as it has, the offense can get by with being merely good.
Oakland’s sub-.500 record is disappointing given last year’s surprise 94-win season, but while they might not climb those same heights this year, with better health (as indicated in the key stat section below, there is an entire outfield on the disabled list, as well as left-hander Brett Anderson, recovering from a sprained ankle) they should improve.

Jarrod Parker (6.86 ERA, perhaps the result of a strained neck) is either going to figure out how to pitch though his problems or make room for someone who can give the A’s a chance to win, and several hitters have yet to give an honest accounting of their abilities. What we don’t know is if a team with a below-average strikeout rate can get by with Jed Lowrie as a starting infielder -- Oakland’s defensive numbers are down this year (see below for more), and the fragile slugger may be to blame.

It would be a mistake to count the A’s out -- Oakland was down further last year, falling as far as 13 games out in June, but it's asking a lot for a team to make up that kind of ground two years in a row. It seems likely that their path to the playoffs lies through the wild card rather than the division title.

Players to watch

by Steven Goldman

Ian Kinsler

Time to recognize, yo

An excellent player, maybe even a great one, but he’s had some issues of timing -- he’s part of a class of hard-hitting second basemen that includes Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Aaron Hill, Brandon Phillips, Dan Uggla, and Howie Kendrick, all of whom established themselves in 2005 or 2006. Throw in Chase Utley, who is a few years older but also broke out in 2005, and it’s easy to see why Kinsler, one of those all-around talents who can do a bit of everything without being a threat to lead the league in anything, gets lost in the shuffle at times. Kinsler has rebounded strongly from the worst offensive season of his career to post rates that are among the best of his career (he can be thankful he plays for the Rangers and not the Red Sox or this might be another case for Sleuthin’ Dan Shaugnessy). To the extent we can safely speculate about the Hall of Fame, Utley seems likely to go in, Cano is already a serious contender, and Pedroia is making a case as well. Kinsler needs a top-10 MVP finish to put him in the same picture as Cano (three) and Pedroia (two, one win) in the popular imagination.

Joe Nathan

He of two first names

This November, baseball will observe the tenth anniversary of the trade that sent Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski and cash -- we can only hope there will be a formal remembrance at the Winter Meetings, including an exchange of wreaths, pledges of amity and good conduct, and colloquia featuring the likes of Brian Sabean, Bill James, and Henry Kissinger. Like Kinsler, Nathan has had the poor timing to be an excellent closer at a time when giants strode the Earth, in his case Mariano Rivera. He needed to cultivate a distinct image, say, by growing a Kitchener moustache, writing books of poetry, or pitching more successfully in the postseason. He should easily penetrate the top ten in career saves, but like Billy Wagner and perhaps Trevor Hoffman before him, he will vanish into pages of history -- footnotes section.

Derek Holland

You did what?

The AL’s second-best rotation by ERA (and FIP) features just one left-hander now that Matt Harrison is out until after the All-Star break. Holland has been relying on his fastball a little less often than he has in the past in the early going this season, throwing more sliders and changeups. The altered mix has flustered right-handed hitters, who have hit only .203/.238/.320 to this point. One of the few baseball truisms that probably doesn’t get enough play is that left-handed pitchers take a while to figure things out in the major leagues. The Rangers have let Holland pay his dues and have gotten some pretty good results out of it; now it might be time to collect.

Josh Donaldson

Baseball player

Baseball loves a late bloomer. A first-round/supplemental draft pick by the Cubs back in 2007, the self-styled Bringer of Rain came to the A’s 13 months later as part of the package for Rich Harden. He made a leisurely trip through the minor leagues, showing inconsistent offensive possibilities while also trying to make it as a catcher. It was only when the A’s moved him to third base, his college position, and found out (a) he was a far, far better third baseman than he was a catcher, and (b) the bat came to life when he wasn't thinking about calling pitches. Donaldson struggled initially, but after he took over from Brandon Inge in August he hit .290/.356/.489. He’s picked up roughly where he left off, in part because he’s absolutely creamed left-handed pitching, hitting .357/.4e8/.711 against them. (WARNING: Small samples cause lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and may complicate pregnancy.)

Jed Lowrie

Stare into my eyes

The Tim Naehring of the 2000s, Lowrie can clearly play but struggles to stay healthy enough to do it. There have been six visits to the disabled list since 2008, five of them lasting between 32 and 117 days. Resultantly, he’s never played in more than 97 games or batted more than 387 times. This has left unanswered several key questions, among them, (a) How good a hitter is he really? (b) Can he hit from the left side of the plate, or can’t he? (c) Is he good enough defensively to be an everyday shortstop? (d) Will he ever stay healthy enough to answer any of these questions? So far, Oakland’s answers seem to be, (a) pretty good, (b) so far, so good, (c) you said "second base," right? and (d) he’s already complained of a stiff neck and we are considering spraying him with stain-resistant preservatives. You can’t complain about what Lowrie’s done so far, but there is still three-quarters of a season left to play and many an open manhole to be avoided.

Bartolo Colon

It's pronounced like cologne you children

Last season, A’s starting pitchers went 64-54 with a 3.80 ERA. So far this season, they’re 13-20 with a 5.17 ERA. Colon’s fastballs, fastballs, fastballs, and have some more fastballs and like it act has worn thin of late, contributing to the difference. After compiling a 2.42 ERA in his first five starts, climaxing with seven shutout innings of the Red Sox on April 28. The three starts since: 15.1 innings, 23 hits, four home runs, 14 runs allowed. Colon is 40 and in the same shape as most sportswriters, so it’s tempting to see this as a sign of the end, but he’s a master of reinvention, some of them not even involving testosterone. (You knew that was coming, right?) Colon has walked just one batter all season, and one wonders if the predictability of his offerings, combined with his reliably being in the strike zone, is working against him. As a guy who lets ‘em put it in play, he also has to contend with the A’s infield -- last year he allowed a batting average of .257 on ground balls. This year, it’s .333.

About the park

by Steven Goldman

The O.co Coliseum perpetuates a baseball tradition, that of the decaying facility that everyone loves to kick. It’s a mantle that the building inherited from Cleveland Municipal Stadium, which made up for what it lacked in ambience and attendance with colorful tales of man-eating rats and spiders in the bullpen. The Coliseum lacks that kind of mythology, except perhaps for the "Mount Davis" enclosure of the upper deck, which allows baseball fans to personify the malevolent dictator who disfigured the ballpark (even if they otherwise appreciate the Oakland Raiders’ two Super bowl wins). In an era of baseball-dedicated stadiums that make an effort to be idiosyncratic, instantly identifiable, and provide the fans not just with a venue for baseball but an "experience," the Coliseum is an anachronism in desperate need of replacement. Though Major League Baseball continues to sit on the team’s petition to decamp to Santa Jose, a reckoning is inevitable.

O.co has long favored pitchers. It’s a tough park to hit the ball out of, particularly for left-handed hitters. The acres of foul ground lead to a multitude of average-killing foul outs as balls that would make the seats in most other parks stay in play. Still, the Rangers have hit fairly well here in recent years: since 2007, Texas has hit approximately .288/.352./.480 at home, .262/.322/.413 on the road, and .263/.320/.395 at O.co. Last year was the outlier -- they hit .212/.267/.314 as the team went 2-7.

Oakland Coliseum:

The Oakland Coliseum is a strange venue, in that it has become known for two disparate qualities. It is widely regarded as an old, decrepit slab of concrete whose views are obstructed just to please a football team that returns the favor by tearing up the outfield grass. But at end of 2012, it also became known for being louder and more electric than its 35,067 capacity would suggest. So A's fans are truly the "10th man on the field" -- even though the same fans can't always even see the whole field. - Nico Pemantle, Athletics Nation

Just Ask the locals!

from Lone Star Ball and Athletics Nation

Speaking of nightmares...

"Before last year, I would have said that there is no rivalry between the Rangers and A's. Yeah, the A's were the dominant team in the West in the late 80s when the Rangers had a lot of talent but couldn't get over the hump, but that was 25 years ago...Dave Stewart, Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley terrorizing Rafael Palmeiro, Charlie Hough and Julio Franco doesn't necessarily resonate anymore. Over the last 15 years or so, when Oakland has been good, Texas hasn't, and when Texas has been good, the A's haven't.

That changed last year, though, when the A's got hot in the second half, the Rangers fell apart down the stretch, and Oakland ended up winning the division when Texas had a collapse of historic proportions, capped off by needing to win one game out of three in Oakland to clinch the division and getting swept. And to epitomize the collapse was the Rangers blowing a 5-1 lead in the 2nd game of the series, with Josh Hamilton dropping an easy fly ball to allow the go-ahead run to score.

After ignoring the A's all season, and dismissing them as irrelevant, that series was a slap in the face for Rangers fans. And while the A's still aren't necessarily the Rangers' main A.L. West rivals -- the Angels still have that title -- the events of last September and October have changed Oakland from a cute little small-market team we could pat on the head and ignore to a featured player in one of Rangers' fans all-time nightmares." - Adam Morris, Lone Star Ball

Not eligible for rivalry. Yet.

"The A's are still reeling from having an entire outfield (Coco Crisp, Chris Young, Josh Reddick) and their ace pitcher (Brett Anderson) on the DL.

As much as Oakland would like to be its best forward for the series against Texas, only Young figures to come back in time for the series and he is not eligible until the finale on Wednesday. Brett Anderson is slated to start Friday, Crisp is a bit behind Young in terms of recovery, and Reddick is not yet eligible.

So the A's are limping, not running, into this series. If there's a rivalry between the A's and Rangers, it is purely a baseball one: In 2012, these teams fought for the AL West title down to the season's final day, and with the Angels fighting the Dodgers and Blue Jays for the dubious distinction as "baseball's most overrated team," 2013 is looking more and more like a two-team race in the AL West.

The A's and Rangers have Ron Washington in common, and also have in common that they vied for Adrian Beltre's services, but other than that they're just two teams who happen to be fighting for the same division title." - Nico Pemantle, Athletics Nation

One Key Stat: .087

by Steven Goldman

Since hitting his last home run at Cleveland on May 6, Yoenis Cespedes has gone 2-for-23 with no walks and no extra-base hits for rates of .087/.087/.087, numbers that, alas, do not produce a jackpot when they show up in the slot machine windows. Combine this with another stat, "3," the number of outfielders on the disabled list (Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Chris Young), multiply it by Reddick and Young’s miserable starts and add in Seth Smith going cold (.154 with no walks in May) and you get .192/.281/.358, the worst aggregate outfield production in the AL -- and that’s counting Crisp’s uncharacteristic .556 slugging percentage.

Bottom Line: A's 2, Rangers 1

by Steven GoldmanThe Game 1 Grrr matchup between Grimm and Griffin goes Oakland’s way, but Derek Holland and Bartolo Colon will continue to ride the career elevator in opposite directions in Game 2. Since striking out 11 in 6.2 innings against the Astros back at the beginning of the season, Dan Straily has been roughed up, but we project (that is, guess) that he’ll bounce back against the Rangers, giving the series to the A’s.
Please post your predictions below.

Game 1: A's 5, Rangers 1

A.J. Griffin held the Rangers to one run and six hits in seven innings, whiffing eight; Yoenis Cespedes broke out of his slump with a home run, and Brandon Moss followed him with a shot of his own.

Athletics Nation recap: Now see this? THIS was a game worthy of the A's in a battle for the AL West. The A's beat the Rangers tonight by combining a fabulous starting pitching performance with some real, honest-to-goodness offense as they cruise to a 5-1 victory to close the gap on Texas and get back to .500.

Lone Star Ball recap: Where's Philip Humber when you need him?

Game 2: RANGERS 6, A's 5

This one went 12 as the Rangers tied it in the top of the eighth, then went ahead on Adrian Beltre and Mitch Moreland home runs in the 10th. Joe Nathan wobbled but didn't fall down in the bottom of the inning.

Athletics Nation recap: The A's lose a frustrating one in extras to Texas, 6-5. Chris Resop allowed two solo home runs in the 10th inning, mistakes that ultimately made the difference in tonight's contest.

Game 3: RANGERS 6, A's 2

The Rangers got another strong performance from Alexi Ogando; Nelson Cruz hit a three-run homer and made a fine diving catch in the right-center-field gap.

Athletics Nation recap: If only the A's were a team that developed good starting pitching. Wait, what?

Lone Star Ball recap: What curse? The Rangers are now two for their last two in Oakland.

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