"No Pennington, I wasn't going for a high-5. I was showing you how many runs I drove in today!"
In August of 2002, the A's were in the middle of a playoff push. When they reached a weak portion of their schedule, they capitalized by sweeping the AL Central. Sometimes you sweep a team, but the A's swept an entire division. 5 teams, 5 straight sweeps. You see, the Central wasn't very good that year; two team finished with winning percentages below .400, and only the Twins finished above .500. Thanks to their ability to pad their record against soft opponents, Oakland cruised to the postseason.
This year, the A's find themselves in a similar position. They're making a drive toward the Wild Card, and they are in the middle of a 9-game stretch against losing teams from the AL Central. Losing teams are hard to come by in the AL this year, so you need to beat them when you have the chance. Things didn't go so well in Kansas City, as Oakland dropped two of three to the Royals.
This series against the Indians was more what they were shooting for.
The A's completed a 3-game sweep of Cleveland with today's 7-0 victory, behind 8 strong innings by Jarrod Parker and a 5 RBI night by Coco Crisp. This one was never really close, which is refreshing for a team who seems to seek out nail-biting finishes. Oakland got out to an early lead, but rather than get comfortable, they continued to add insurance runs throughout the afternoon. Furthermore, Parker showed maturity by trusting his defense once he was given a lead, pounding the strike zone and letting his teammates take care of things behind him. When he nibbles and starts walking guys, an opponent can sneak their way back into a game like this. Today, he took it straight to the house and Cleveland had no response. Read all about it after the jump!
As the score suggests, this game was pretty one-sided. Oakland got things started in the 3rd when Justin Masterson's 3-2 pitch hit Cliff Pennington in the foot. Jemile Weeks laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt, and Coco Crisp followed with a well-placed grounder through the hole on the right side for an RBI single. Ten feet to either side, and it would have been a routine out. Sort of a groundout to nobody.
There might be some debate over the strategy of having Weeks lay down a bunt so early in the game. Normally, I would be opposed to the sacrifice bunt in general, and particularly against it so early in a game. However, with the way Weeks has been struggling, the fact that the top of the order was coming up after him, and the sour memory of the previous inning ending in a rally-killing double play, I was totally fine with this decision. The fact that it worked to perfection, with Coco driving in the run behind him, just makes me feel even better about it.
In the 4th, Brandon Moss smoked a solo homer to right. 2-0 A's.
In the 5th, the bottom of the order started another rally. Pennington singled, and Weeks chose to bunt again. This time, though, he was able to beat Jack Hannahan's throw to first, turning his sacrifice attempt into an infield single. Coco followed by blasting a home run to right, increasing Oakland's lead to 5-0.
In the 6th, Weeks decided to swing away for a change, and this time he looped a ball into the left-field corner for an RBI double. The Weeks that I saw today is the Weeks that I've wanted to see all season. He utilized his speed effectively, drove a ball to the opposite field, trusted his skill set rather than trying to "do too much," and generally forced the opponent to make plays. This Weeks shows up from time to time, and then disappears in another 2-week slump of long swings and flyouts to center. Let's see if he can build on today's success.
Coco followed Weeks' double with an RBI single to make the score 7-0, and Josh Donaldson followed with a sharp double to left. Donaldson is now 10-for-24 (1.065 OPS) with 3 extra-base hits since his return to Oakland. Granted, it's all been against Kansas City and Cleveland pitching, but it's still an encouraging sign.
The best part of this game was Oakland's relentless offensive assault. They didn't get comfortable with an early 2-0 lead and let Cleveland come to bat in the 9th with a chance to make things interesting. They kept adding on until they had put their opponent away. They did the same thing last night, and it turned out to be important; when the Indians hit a couple of homers in the 9th, they were fairly inconsequential because the A's had taken care of business earlier on and put the game out of reach. This is something that Oakland wasn't doing earlier in the summer, when every game was coming down to the wire and every 9th inning was a high-leverage save situation.
While the A's were knocking around Masterson, Jarrod Parker was busy mowing down the Indians' lineup. He started off shaky, working himself into tight spots in each of the first three innings. Ezequiel Carrera led off the game with a bunt single, and then promptly stole second. Replays showed that Derek Norris actually threw Carrera out, but umpire Joe West blew the call, because Joe West. Later, with Carrera on 3rd and one out, Parker got the big strikeout and eventually stranded the runner. In the 2nd, Parker allowed a hit and a walk, but escaped unscathed. In the 3rd, he allowed a pair of 2-out hits, but once again got out of the the jam.
Once Parker's lineup gave him the lead, though, he settled down and retired the Indians 1-2-3 in four of the next 5 innings. He simply pitched to contact, and the aggressive Cleveland hitters swung early and often. Parker needed only 93 pitches to complete 8 shutout innings. He recorded 13 outs on the ground and issued only one walk, bringing his total to just 9 free passes in his last 7 starts. While he has allowed a lot of hard contact lately, and seen his ERA rise a full run since early July, Parker has actually improved his peripheral stats recently. While I don't want to read too much into a start against a struggling team with a below-average offense, it was nice to see Parker enjoy a bounce-back outing this late in the season. Perhaps he has more left in the tank than some people, including myself, are giving him credit for.
When you're in a tight playoff race, every win counts. When a relatively easy opponent comes to town, you need to make the most of the opportunity and win the games that you're supposed to win, just as Oakland did in 2002. This weekend, in the midst of the celebration of The Streak, the A's did exactly what they needed to do. They swept an inferior opponent, kept the pressure on their Wild Card rivals, re-built some momentum after a brief slump, and reinforced their fans' hopes for an exciting September.
And they did all that without needing to hit a single walk-off homer. Crazy, folks. Just plain crazy.
The .417 Twins come to town tomorrow to begin a 3-game series. Brandon McCarthy starts in the opener against Brian Duensing. Game time is 7:05pm. Another sweep would be nice.