One mark of a good team is that its slumps and losing streaks don't last very long. Every team stumbles now and then, but the best ones don't let a couple of losses turn into a week-long skid, or let a bad week drag out into a bad month. In that spirit, the Oakland Athletics once again bounced back from a poor performance. They entered last week on a four-game losing streak, and their abilities against contending teams were once again called into question. However, they split four games with the AL Central-leading Detroit Tigers and then swept the Angels over the weekend to post a 5-2 record against tough competition.
There were plenty of achievements to be proud of. The A's beat defending Cy Young Max Scherzer, although the bullpen later blew the game. The next day, they broke closer Joe Nathan for a blown save and a loss. They smashed Jered Weaver, and they knocked Garrett Richards out of his start in the first inning. They held the fourth-best offense in baseball (Angels) to only 11 runs in three games despite calling on their fourth and fifth starters. On the other side, Josh Donaldson blasted four home runs (including a walk-off), drove in a dozen runs, and batted .393/.469/.857. The team as a whole tallied 13 long balls and 33 walks -- about two homers and five walks per game, on average. Sean Doolittle and Luke Gregerson combined for eight shutout innings with 13 strikeouts, Scott Kazmir threw his first complete game of the year, and Tommy Milone continued to roll.
Overall, the A's 35-22 record (.614) is once again the best in the American League, and trails only the Giants in the NL. This is made even more impressive by the fact that the AL West is statistically the best division in baseball at the moment -- four out of the five teams are .500 or better, the Angels are the best second-place team, and the resurgent Astros are the third-best last-place team. The run differential is up to plus-115, followed most closely by the Giants (plus-59) and Blue Jays (plus-39). Yep, things are looking good in Oakland as we enter the month of June. Here are some of the major story lines from the last week.
Josh Donaldson: MVP
Last year, Josh Donaldson finished fourth in the AL MVP voting, but probably should have finished second or third (and certainly should have been ahead of Baltimore's Chris Davis, who had no business in the top-three, with all due respect). This year, it's not even close. Donaldson has been the runaway MVP of the American League.
Start with the fact that he's the best player on the best team in the league. Then, move on to WAR -- Donaldson leads the league on both Baseball-Reference (4.5, followed by Mike Trout at 3.3) and Fangraphs (3.6, then Trout at 3.5). He's tied for third in home runs (15), and he's fourth in RBI (48), which are historically the all-important measures of MVP's. As for his fielding, he has accrued plus-12 Defensive Runs Saved, which trails only outfielders Jason Heyward, Juan Lugares and Giancarlo Stanton in the entire Majors; by the measure of DRS, Donaldson is tied with Troy Tulowitzki as the best defensive infielder in baseball and the best defender in the AL at any position. By virtue of small-sample UZR, he's third behind Heyward and Alex Gordon. Simply put, Donaldson is one of the five best hitters in the AL and one of the five best defenders in all of MLB.
On Wednesday, the A's had been stifled all night by 2013 ERA leader Anibal Sanchez. Scott Kazmir was on the hook for a loss after throwing a complete game and allowing only one run. But never fear, because Josh Donaldson stepped up and hit a walk-off three-run homer off of All-Star closer Joe Nathan:
Oh, and here's the defense I was talking about:
M. V. Effing. P.
The Yoenis Cespedes Game
Toward the end of the week, I was beginning to prepare a section about how Yoenis Cespedes has been struggling. His plate discipline has been slipping and his OBP has been plummeting. He hasn't drawn a walk since May 20, and in the seven games from May 24 to May 30 he struck out 10 times in 30 plate appearances.
But then, on Saturday, the Yoenis Cespedes Game happened. La Potencia put on a career-defining performance in front of a sold-out crowd against the Angels, excelling on both sides of the ball as the A's took a shaky start and turned it into a dominant victory. The show began in the second inning, with Tommy Milone already trying to work out of his second jam of the evening. He twice allowed singles to left field with runners on second, and both times Cespedes gunned down the runners at the plate:
Matt Stairs was the last Oakland outfielder to throw out a pair of runners in one inning, back in 1996.
Fast forward to the fourth, with the A's down 3-0. With a runner on first, Cespedes doubled; the runner moved up to third and was then knocked in with a sac fly. In the seventh, the A's had tied the game and still had two runners on with two outs; Cespedes drove them both home with a triple to take the lead for the first time in the evening. With the score 8-3 in the eighth, Cespedes removed all doubt with a three-run bomb. His final line: 3-for-5, nine total bases, five RBI, two runs scored, two run-saving outfield assists.
It was a Cespedes miracle!
Derek Norris has been freed by Bob Melvin, but unfortunately his season-opening hot streak is in the past. He went 1-for-16 last week, and although he walked four times he also struck out nine times. That's nine times in 21 plate appearances (he also had a sac fly, if you're wondering why that math doesn't add up). Take it back to May 20, and he's 3-for-32 in his last 12 games (with nine walks and 11 strikeouts, .094/.286/.219). Granted, his one hit last week was a home run in Oakland's 10-0 shellacking of Drew Smyly and the Tigers, but his season line is down to .289/.399/.469. Don't worry, his OPS+ is still 148 and he's still hitting right-handers reasonably well.
No longer Shootin' Blanks
Kyle Blanks arrived in Oakland as a Quadruple-A slugger with something to prove. He didn't do much in his first week here, but last week he showed why Billy Beane thought his power was worth a look. He appeared in four games and went 4-for-8 with two homers, three walks and only two strikeouts. Fun with small-sample batting lines: .500/.636/1.250!!
Here's what it looks like when Blanks connects:
If he can be a productive right-handed bat off the bench, then ... look out. (Oh yeah, he also plays pretty solid defense at first.)
The following players hit at least .300 for the week last week:
Kyle Blanks (.500)
Nick Punto (.400)
John Jaso (.400)
Josh Donaldson (.393)
Eric Sogard (.385)
Coco Crisp (.333)
Alberto Callaspo (.320)
Craig Gentry (.300)
And although Cespedes and Brandon Moss didn't make that cut, they did each add a pair of dingers. And Norris and Jed Lowrie homered, and Josh Reddick had a clutch RBI double during an A's comeback bid. Oakland got production from up and down the lineup, and there just aren't any easy outs among this group right now. Here's what it looks like when Nick Punto hits a homer:
Milone keeps rolling
Tommy Milone ran his string of solid starts up to five with two more good appearances. He pitched shutout ball into the seventh against the Tigers, and then turned in a shaky-but-quality outing (six innings, three runs, lots of LOB) against the Angels. The team notched victories in both of his starts and has won four of his last five games. In those five appearances, he has a 1.67 ERA and 23-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That's Oakland's fifth starter.
Remember when ninth innings were shaky for the 2014 A's?
Yeah, not anymore. Sean Doolittle's season line: 38 strikeouts, one walk.
Here's MLB.com's video of the 1974 World Champions reunion.
Now let's celebrate that 40th anniversary, and the 25th anniversary of Oakland's last championship, by bringing home another title this season!