The Hottest Team in Baseball
July 23, 2012 by Ross Lancaster • Print Story •
When Major League Baseball announced it would be adding a second wild card team, the move was met with derision from casual and diehard fans. A month before this season, when MLB decided to move up the scheduled change, going to five playoff teams in each league felt like a money grab. Furthermore, the added teams for October threatened to dull the drama associated with the end of the regular season, which was never more thrilling than in 2011.
Now, though, it appears that the additional teams may make the final two months of 2012's regular season just as memorable as 2011.
As of press time, in the American League, while only one division race has a margin of five games or less from first to second, the wild card race has a mind-boggling eight teams within three games of the two playoff spots. Such a logjam means that with the exception of games involving Seattle, Kansas City, and Minnesota, every single AL game currently has playoff implications.
The National League is more spaced out, but about half the league remains in playoff contention. Ahead of next week's trade deadline, a plethora of contending teams means that deals may come fast and furious.
One of the teams that may trade for players to help for the stretch run and stands to benefit from the extra wild card is the Oakland Athletics, who are currently baseball's hottest team, posting a 14-2 record in July to go from having the AL's fourth-worst record to its fourth-best.
The rise of the A's in what could be their first winning season since losing to the Tigers in the 2006 ALCS comes in a season in which the last iteration of the four-team AL West was supposed to be a competition between the high-powered offenses and costly pitching staffs of the Angels and the Rangers. The A's and Mariners were to provide approximately 35-40 games of fodder for Los Angeles and Texas. The Mariners' lackluster lineup has done nothing to change that perception, but the A's are now succeeding in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year thanks to one of the league's best and most underappreciated pitching staffs.
As a team, the A's have a 3.39 ERA, good enough for fourth in the majors. But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of their current run is that opening day starter Brandon McCarthy, as well as other probable starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden have been out (with Anderson and Braden not appearing in any action to this point in the season). Rookies Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone were forced to pick up the slack, and have performed to the point where the A's are considering a six-man rotation once everyone is healthy.
Travis Blackley has only been with the team since May after getting waived by the Giants, but his move to the less glamorous side of the Bay Area has seen him do very solid work when called upon to start, with a WHIP of 1.006 in Oakland. The Australian lefty has never thrown nearly as many major league innings as he has in 2012, and was pitching in South Korea at this time last year. Bartolo Colon, who is somehow still pitching at the age of 39 after years of injuries, has been able to eat innings and post an ERA around the league average. Ryan Cook, Oakland's lone all-star, has already proven himself to be one of this year's best young closers. His play may force the A's to trade one-time closer Grant Balfour.
The A's lineup is decidedly more shaky than its pitching staff, with a team on-base percentage and team OPS among the game's worst. Josh Reddick, who general manager Billy Beane picked up in the offseason from Boston for former closer Andrew Bailey, has been the team's best slugger. Bailey has not yet thrown a pitch for the Red Sox after requiring thumb surgery in April. Well-publicized Cuban rookie Yoenis Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, and Seth Smith are the team's other offensive weapons in an otherwise middling lineup that could be improved with trades in the coming days.
But what the team lacks in consistency to get on base and hit for power it makes up for in the dramatic. When the A's defeated the Yankees Sunday with Coco Crisp's single, it marked Oakland's 11th walk-off win of the year, the highest total in the majors. The previous night, Brandon Inge didn't deliver a walk-off, but did homer in the bottom of the eighth to ensure that Parker's 8-inning, 1-run pitching performance was rewarded with a win.
As a fan of an AL West team (Texas), I've had the chance to see Oakland three times this season, including twice in a four-game series just as the A's were starting the brilliant run they are currently on now. In the second of the two games I attended that series, Rangers phenom Yu Darvish was on the hill, with Blackley his counterpart. Despite the fact that Darvish had his best stuff early and ultimately struck out 11, Blackley had superior command and out-pitched the Japanese player. The A's non-flashy lineup then manufactured runs off of 6 total hits, pouncing when the ball began to get away from Darvish.
It's the type of win that Oakland has been making a habit of as it leap frogs higher dollar payrolls in the standings. If the A's keep achieving at this level, they may not even need this year's second Wild Card spot and could reach heights not seen since the "Moneyball" era.