Today's game was the quintessential Rebuilding Year Game. The A's played poorly overall, and lost as a result, and yet I can't help but take away some serious positives from this one. I'm bummed that the team lost, guaranteeing the Texas Rangers a series win and opening the possibility of a 4-game sweep, but I'm happy about some other really important things. Let me explain.
In a rebuilding year, you have to look past the wins and losses and focus on the development of the players who you're trying to mold into stars. Sure, winning games is a nice bonus, but I'd rather that the A's lose a game in which a couple of youngsters did excellent things, than win a game because Brandon Inge hit a homer and Bartolo Colon threw a shutout. Those things would be fun to watch, but neither of those players figure to be on the team next year. The joy from that win would be fleeting.
Today's game featured encouraging performances from two critical Oakland rookies: Tommy Milone and Chris Carter. Yes, you read that right: Chris Carter had a good game. In the Majors. Honest. Milone baffled the Rangers' lineup until his defense betrayed him in the 5th, and Carter swatted a homer and a double in his first two at-bats, scoring both of Oakland's runs. That's the short version. Continue after the jump for the long version!
Tommy Milone started the game for Oakland, and pitched brilliantly. He struck out 4 of the first 5 batters he faced (never mind that the 5th guy, Adrian Beltre, hit a homer), and retired 9 of the first 10 overall. He was hitting his spots, keeping the Rangers off-balance, and letting his defense make plays behind him. He looked most impressive against Ian Kinsler. In both of his first 2 at-bats, Kinsler worked a full count, and both times Milone froze him with the same low fastball on the outside black of the plate. Kinsler is planning to write an angry letter to the Umpires Association regarding the matter.
In the 5th inning, Oakland led 2-1. At that point, though, things just fell apart around Milone. He induced a routine grounder from leadoff man Nelson Cruz, but Brandon Inge booted it for an error. Inge is usually a top-notch defender, but he's made 3 errors in the last 4 games. It could just be a blip on the radar, or perhaps he's taking his recent struggles at the plate into the field with him. Either way, it's safe to say that the "new car smell" has worn off. I'm still happy that the A's have Inge, but I'm once again looking forward to the return of Scott Sizemore in 2013 rather than dreading a tough decision between the two this winter.
After a single by Mike Napoli, Yorvit Torrealba bounced back to Milone. The pitcher made a heads-up play by catching Cruz halfway to the plate, but Cruz responded in kind with some excellent baserunning, stalling his inevitable demise long enough for the runners to advance all the way to 2nd and 3rd. Rather than a baserunning mistake, Cruz managed to turn the whole episode into a sort of halfway-productive out. Milone absolutely made the right play by going home to nail the lead runner, but you have to wonder if things would have worked out better if he'd turned around and gotten the 1-6-3 double play instead.
Craig Gentry came up next, and smashed a liner toward left field. However, shortstop Brandon Hicks used a perfectly timed leap and every inch of his 6'2" frame to nab the ball out of the air and rob Gentry of a 2-run single. I can't say for sure, but I don't think that Cliff Pennington (4 inches shorter than Hicks) would have made that play. It wouldn't matter, though, because Kinsler finally got his revenge, flaring the lamest 2-run hit ever about 20 feet behind Inge down the 3rd base line. It had to have been pretty disappointing for Hicks to watch his timely defensive gem go to waste. Don't worry, he'd forget about that soon; things were about to get much, much worse for this particular Brandon.
With the damage seemingly having been done, Elvis Andrus rapped a routine grounder to Hicks for what should have been the third out. Hicks, however, clanked the ball off the heel of his glove, allowing the inning to continue with two men on base. No matter, though, right? You can still get out of the jam by retiring...Josh Hamilton? Aw, crap. It's ok, though. He's been kinda sorta struggling a little bit lately, for him, and his right arm-or-maybe-shoulder has been visibly bothering him all game. You already struck him out once, Milone. Maybe you can sneak one past him if you just oh wait no never mind he hit a 419-foot homer to dead center game over.
So, you can see what I mean. Milone pitched very well, and ultimately struck out 6 Rangers without allowing a walk. His K:BB for the season is up to 2.63, and it's 13:1 over his last 3 games. Sure, he got rocked in the end, but that will happen pretty much any time that you give the Rangers a 5-out inning with 2 free baserunners; only 1 of the 6 runs he allowed was earned. Also, Hamilton has homered against pretty much every pitcher in the AL this season anyway, so I mean, join the club, Tommy. Milone painted corners, changed speeds, and more than held his own against one of the toughest lineups in baseball. I was thoroughly impressed. Considering that I see Milone as a big part of Oakland's future rotation, a solid performance like this can sometimes make me happier than the team's loss makes me upset. In this case, my overall satisfaction is the result of Milone's pitching combined with Chris Carter's hitting.
Carter has had a lot of trouble getting his Major League career started, but this time he looks like he might finally be turning a corner. After homering in his final at-bat last night, Carter took Texas starter Martin Perez deep in his first at-bat today. Even more impressive was the fact that he hit it to right field. He homered in two straight at-bats, once to left and once to right. That is so exciting that I can't even put it in words.
In his next at-bat, Carter smoked a liner into the gap in left-center for a 2-out double, eventually scoring on Inge's RBI single. If you told me that the A's would only score two runs today, but that they'd both be the results of extra-base hits by Carter, I'd probably have taken that deal. Heck, I'd take a 10-game losing streak right now if Carter homered in every game. Can you imagine if he actually turned into a legitimate Major League slugger? The A's would become a contender much faster than anyone expected.
I was honestly at a point where I had given up on Carter. It was a combination of his failures at the Major League level, plus his awful pitch recognition, plus his overly-passive approach at the plate, plus the way he appeared to have no confidence in himself after every pathetic strikeout. Two games doesn't change everything, but it changes enough that I am once again excited to watch him play. The first homer could have been a fluke off a reliever with an ERA over 9. The second straight homer got me watching. The third straight extra base hit has me back on the bandwagon, letting myself start to daydream about Chris Carter Arriving. Is it a sure thing? Of course not. Carter could go 0 for his next 33. Wouldn't be the first time. But this time feels different. That 1.929 OPS couldn't be THAT far off, right?
So, the A's lost. Big deal. Milone looked superb against a terrifying lineup for as long as the universe would allow him to, and Carter re-opened the door to the possibility of becoming an actual Major Leaguer. If you can't get excited about what you saw in tonight's game, then I think you need to re-adjust your priorities. Oakland won tonight.