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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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