With 38 games left in the season, the A’s are mired in their worst slump of the season. How they react at this point will determine their fate, not only for the season but the postseason.
The slump has coincided with the departure of Yoenis Cespedes in the trade for Jon Lester. Many fans think this is no coincidence, but, having covered Major League Baseball since the 1962 World Series, I’ve seen good teams have terrible stretches too often to attribute a slump to the absence of one player. Even the best hitters are inconsistent. Cespedes was the flashiest player, but not the A’s most productive hitter. Josh Donaldson was easily the most reliable in the clutch and Brandon Moss wasn’t far behind.
Pitchers are much more consistent, which is why smart general managers concentrate on getting top pitchers. That’s exactly what the A’s Billy Beane did with this trade. When you can start an important series, regular season or postseason, with Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray, that’s exactly where you want to be.
The A’s have had injury problems. Shortstop Jed Lowrie had to admit that his finger injury made it difficult for him to make the throws to first, so he’s out of action for a time. Coco Crisp isn’t totally healthy, though he’s playing. At this point in the season, no player wants to go on the disabled list.
It’s also important to note that the A’s have built their team to succeed at O.co Coliseum, which is not a park that rewards consistent hitting.
The huge foul areas mean that many foul pop-ups that would go in the stands elsewhere — especially at AT&T Park — are caught, shortcutting rallies. So, the best A’s teams, dating back to the late ’80s, have emphasized power. The side effect is that the A’s have often had inconsistent offenses, capable of big power displays one game and then shutting down the next. It’s been that way this season, too, even before the departure of Cespedes.
But they need to hit the on button now because in the last quarter of the season, they’ll be playing the Los Angeles Angels 10 times, starting with a series this week in Oakland. Those games will decide who wins the AL West and has the best chance of advancing. The wild card is really a crapshoot because a lesser team with a real shutdown pitcher — the Seattle Mariners come to mind, with Felix Hernandez — could bring an abrupt end to the A’s season.
Frankly, I’ve never known a good team like this year’s A’s. Championship teams usually have a core of stars who play virtually every game. This A’s team has Donaldson, who rarely comes out of the lineup. Crisp plays when he’s healthy, even if it’s only as a designated hitter, because he’s so good at the top of the order, but he’s been on the DL for a good part of this season.
Otherwise, manager Bob Melvin platoons relentlessly and moves his players around like chess pieces. None of this bothers the players, a close-knit group.
This attitude makes me think they’ll snap out of their slump and go on to win the AL West — and maybe more.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.