The A’s have been without their top starter, Rich Harden, for almost all season. Eric Chavez, their best player, has been handicapped by tendinitis in his forearms. Nick Swisher has lost 15 pounds (apparently mononucleosis) and his batting average has plummeted. The bullpen was torn apart by injuries early. Yet, the A’s have been in first place in the AL West every day but one since June 14.
Isn’t it time to give credit to manager Ken Macha?
Macha labors in the huge shadow of general manager Billy Beane, which leads many in the media to conclude that he is just a puppet for Beane, as his predecessor, Art Howe, was.
In fact, though, Macha is much different — an intense, intelligent man with a degree in civil engineering who can make the tough decisions. He tells the players, “You make out the lineup,” because he’ll play those who are most effective.
“This has been my most frustrating season because of the injuries,” Macha said when we talked before Sunday’s game at the Coliseum. “I was looking at
Toronto’s record this morning and they were 10 games over .500. Well, Roy Halladay is 13-2. We really thought Harden could be that kind of pitcher for us, the kind of guy you expect to throw a shutout any time he goes out there.”
The bullpen was a mess earlier. Huston Street was subpar because he pitched in the World Baseball Classic. Joe Kennedy, Jay Witasick and Justin Duchscherer were all on the disabled list. Macha has specific ideas on how to make the most of the strengths of his relievers, but he was forced to use relievers called up from Triple-A Sacramento. “You don’t know what they can do until you use them,” he told me at the time, “and by then, it can be too late.”
Nonetheless, Macha and the A’s have persevered, because he brings a stability to the club that was especially evident last season, when the A’s endured a 4-20 stretch in May but rebounded to contend for the postseason in September.
Macha has a sure-handed touch with his pitchers. Ideally, he likes his starter to give him seven innings, and then he can use either Duchscherer or Kiko Calero in the eighth, with Street closing it out in the ninth. But he can adjust when it isn’t that tidy.
In Wednesday’s rubber match of the three-game series in Anaheim, the erratic Esteban Loaiza pitched out of a couple of jams in his first five innings but, when he got into another one in the sixth, Macha had seen enough. He brought in Brad Halsey to get one out, Calero to get the final out of the sixth and three outs in the seventh. Knowing that Street had not pitched in two days and that the heart of the Angels’ batting order was coming up, he brought in his closer for a two-inning save. Street retired the Angels 1-2-3 in order on an economical 22 pitches in the two innings.
If the A’s can get Harden back for the September stretch run, they could be a factor in the postseason with a rotation of Harden, Barry Zito and Dan Haren. But even if they miss the postseason entirely, Macha deserves credit for keeping the ship afloat while leaks are showing up everywhere.