OAKLAND — In the tunnel leading from the Oakland Athletics locker room to the floor of the Oakland Coliseum is a simple sign. Secured to the side of the tunnel with Scotch tape, the laminated piece of white paper says “Today’s goal: Shake hands.”
It was something manager Bob Melvin came up with during spring training. Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman placed the sign before he was sent down, and ultimately underwent Tommy John surgery.
“Our goals earlier this season were not long-range goals,” Melvin said. “They were short-term goals. You have changes as the season goes along. For us, shaking hands at the end of the day is a good one to continually try to think about, to try to keep yourself in the moment.”
In the midst of a 34-36 start, short term goals were just about all the A’s had, but on Tuesday night, after Oakland won its 42nd game since June 16, players sat in the clubhouse, glued to the television, watching the Houston Astros and the Seattle Mariners. For about half an hour — until Houston came out on top — the A’s had sole possession of first place in the American League West.
“Maybe in April, that wasn’t necessarily our goal,” Melvin said. “I think those things have changed as we’ve gone along.”
With no stadium deal on the horizon, a rotation full of youngsters and a pair of corner infielders who showed promise — but not over a full season — Oakland was characterized by uncertainty before the start of the 2018 season. Then they started winning.
On June 16, the A’s were 12 games out of first place. Then, they crept up on and passed the Mariners for the second Wild Card spot in the American League. Over the last 56 games, they’ve gone 42-14, and are looking at a sweep of the Texas Rangers in Wednesday’s matinee, before heading on the road to play the Minnesota Twins and then to Houston to play the Astros.
“I don’t think there was a particular day,” Melvin said. “I think we just got on a nice run, and had a good feeling about winning. Then, once we got probably in the conversation with the Wild Card, the next step after that is thinking about the division. I don’t know if there was a particular day, but once we got in the Wild Card conversation, those thoughts kind of filter in.”
After beating the Astros twice in a row last weekend, they were tied for first in the division. Over their last seven games against Houston, the A’s are 5-2.
Unlike his players, Melvin didn’t seek out the game on television following the Oakland win.
“It’s not something I run in my office and turn on,” he said.”If I had the Food Network in my office, I would probably turn that on.”
That attitude — the laid-back, easy confidence — is one that permeates the clubhouse. Josh Phegley, Ryan Buchter and Stephen Piscotty’s lockers all feature colorful cartoon shower curtains. Queries on just why they’re there are met with a clap on the shoulder, a smile and a “Sorry, can’t tell you.”
A handwritten scoreboard taped to the cabinets above the lockers details a season-long free throw-shooting and H-O-R-S-E contest on a Nerf hoop above Sean Manaea’s locker. No dunks allowed.
“We have a great clubhouse to begin with, and I think one of the reasons we’re able to get over a tough loss or whatever is that these guys have the right attitude every day, and they play for a particular day. Whenever you’re going through a nice streak, wins-loss-wise, it means everyone tends to get along a little bit better.”
Part of the reason why the A’s have been so good has been a starting rotation that’s been startlingly good down the stretch. Since the All-Star break, A’s starters have a 3.01 ERA. Over the last 19 games, A’s starters have surrendered two runs or fewer 16 times, and are 11-2 with a 1.99 ERA, with opponents hitting .196 over that span.
Injuries to the youngsters — Graveman, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Mengden and prospective call-up A.J. Puk — have transformed the rotation. Since July 30, the veteran quartet Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill, Mike Fiers and Brett Anderson have made 15 starts for the A’s. In 93 innings, they have a collective 1.26 ERA, averaging just over six innings per start.
“They’re inspired by the situation here,” Melvin said. “They have maybe not been in a situation like this in a while, and you insulate within the group, and you don’t feel like you have to do too much, because the next guy has your back. Now, the rotation starts to pitch better and better, and these guys want to keep up with each other, so there’s competition as far as that goes.”
“In Brett’s case, maybe a little bit of a reinvent. He used to just be a power pitcher, fastball-slider, now he’s a true four-pitch mix. Trevor’s got a few more clubs in his bag, too. Edwin is throwing the ball over the plate and mixes pitches to where he’s tough to think along with.”
Those corner infielders who were question marks? Matt Chapman — hitting third on Wednesday as All-Star Jed Lowrie gets the day off — is the best defensive third baseman in baseball, and leads the majors in doubles (13) and extra-base hits (22) since the All-Star break. Matt Olson has been a vacuum at first, and since July 28 is hitting .268 with nine doubles, two homers and nine RBIs. Khris Davis — in his first season of being a pure DH — is tied for first in the American League in home runs and is second in RBIs. He’s hitting .308 in August and is on pace to surpass 50 homers.
“He understands where we are right now, and he understands that there are some other guys we need to get in the outfield, so he just moves on and DHs,” Melvin said. “… It allows us to play him every day. If you’re playing in the outfield, we’re probably look to get him a little bit more rest. That’s the not the case when he’s DHing. We definitely need his bat in the lineup every day.”
Melvin said that from his vantage point in the dugout, it’s tough to turn and look at the American League out-of-town scoreboard. But …
“I couldn’t help but take a peek last night, when Houston and Seattle are playing each other,” he said. “You don’t have to go far to find that score. About the seventh inning or so was the first time I looked over at the scoreboard.”
Then Davis hit another home run. Trade deadline acquisition Jeurys Familia — a former All-Star closer — tossed a scoreless eighth, and rookie set-up man Lou Trivino finished the ninth.
“It’s just changed,” Melvin said, “but I think all these guys are inspired by the position we’re in at this point.”