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Oakland Athletics: Victory over Cleveland signals return to form

Oakland — Here’s a baseball formula that rarely fails: Get five or six quality innings from your starting pitcher, hit for power and then turn a lead over to a dominant bullpen.

With relief pitcher usage and home run totals rising, the game can often be boiled down to checking those boxes. Teams that fulfill each step are usually in the hunt for the postseason. Teams that don’t are left behind. The Oakland A’s are hoping to catch up.

Four years ago, the A’s had solid starting pitching, Yoenis Céspedes and Josh Reddick and Josh Donaldson in the middle of their lineup, and a bullpen equipped with the likes of Sean Doolittle and Grant Balfour. They made the playoffs three years in a row. Then came three straight losing seasons.

This year, Oakland (46-38) has once again aligned with the three-step method. Despite low expectations, they’re looking more and more like a contender.

On Saturday, the formula led to a 7-2 victory over the Cleveland Indians. Veteran starter Edwin Jackson tossed a gem, the offense blasted three home runs and the bullpen did its job.

Oakland has now won six straight and 12 of its past 14. After many assumed the A’s would be sellers at the trade deadline, they could instead look to add a piece or two in the coming month. They’re 6.5 games behind the Seattle Mariners for a playoff spot.

Even if they don’t catch up in the Wild Card race, Saturday’s game added to the growing sense that the future is bright.

“I do feel like this is a special group,” said Jackson, who has played for 12 other MLB teams. “This team is underrated. This team can do a lot of special things.”

Jackson had only one bad inning, and the damage there was manageable. In the fourth, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor drove a slider below the strike zone over the fence in right field, and third baseman Jose Ramirez took a mistake fastball over the fence in center. No runners were on base for either blast.

By preventing Cleveland from finding any sort of offensive rhythm over his 6.2 innings, Jackson once again did more than what was asked of him as a fifth-starter recently called up from Triple-A Nashville. He allowed just two hits, struck out six, and for the second straight game did not issue a walk.

“It’s a really good look,” manager Bob Melvin said. “You knew there would be some added adrenaline and a little more focus once he got to the big leagues, and that’s been the case.

As Jackson impressed, the A’s mustered just one hit through the first five frames. But a barrage of hard-hit balls, mostly to left field, finally knocked Indians starter Adam Plutko out of the game in the sixth and gave them a 3-2 lead. Catcher Josh Phegley launched a two-run home run over the out of town scoreboard in left. Left fielder Mark Canha just missed a bomb to the same location, settling for a go-ahead double off the wall.

A bullpen that has been nearly invincible this season was strong again. Oakland’s relievers are the main reason the team now has a 32-0 record when leading after seven innings — the only undefeated mark left in baseball.

Not that the combination of Ryan Buchter (2.77 ERA), Emilio Pagan (2.86 ERA), Santiago Casilla (3.00 ERA) and Lou Trivino (1.56 ERA) needed to be perfect on Saturday. Because the A’s got eighth-inning home runs from center fielder Dustin Fowler and Matt Olson to take a 7-2 lead, there was some extra wriggle room.

“We’ve just been playing complete baseball,” Olson said. “If the bats aren’t there to start, the pitching has covered us for a little bit. If our pitching maybe struggles one game, our bats [find a way]. … It’s been fun.”

Last year, Oakland lost 87 games and finished at the bottom of the AL West. The franchise entered 2018 without much fanfare. Now, it is playing meaningful games entering July.

Such a turnaround is not unprecedented around here. Remember that Oakland lost 88 games in 2011 before reeling off 94 victories the next year en route to a division title. That breakthrough, of course, ignited a three-year stretch of success at the Coliseum.

Melvin laughed when asked whether there were parallels between the 2012 team and the one that beat the Indians on Saturday. He’s often said that squad was one of his favorites to manage. He couldn’t make a direct comparison, at least not at this point in the season.

But given how poorly things have gone over the past couple of seasons, Melvin acknowledged there has been a feeling of rejuvenation about the A’s much like there was in 2012.

“We’ve got a little ways to go,” Melvin said. “It is a good feeling … when you have a road trip [like we had] and then you play a really good team like this and you beat them the first two games. We’ll see on the 2012 comparison.”

Dan Bernstein
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Dan Bernstein

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