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A Force to be Reckoned With

The luxury of a true ace: You feel like you can beat absolutely anyone when they take the hill.

Rich Harden and the A's once again proved that they're a force to be reckoned with when he's on the mound, cruising to a strikingly low-blood pressure 8-3 Friday night against the Red Sox. 

Entering tonight, the Red Sox were the hottest team in baseball, winners of seven straight, and had the best record in MLB.  They are arguably the best team in baseball. 

But it didn't feel like it tonight, and that's what Harden brings.  He attacked hitters smartly and with supreme confidence, striking out eight hitters and throwing 105 pitches in six innings.  Watch him on a night like tonight, and it's hard to fathom him being criticized by anyone for his courage or toughness.  He looked fearless and relaxed, even smirking when Ellbury squeaked seeing-eye single in the hole on a check swing.

Perhaps just as impressive was what followed him in relief - two terrific innings from Joey Devine in the critical seventh and eighth.  Particularly impressive was Devine consistently hitting 95 with movement and striking out Ortiz with back-to-back over-powering fastballs.  Street following with a clinically efficient ninth, striking out a pair as the A's pitchers tallied 12 strikeouts total for the night.

Mark Ellis certainly made his presence felt in his return to the lineup.  His three-run homer staked the A's to a commanding 7-0 lead in the third, but what won't show up in the boxscore is the three typically outstanding, heady defensive plays he made:

  1. In the top of the third he instinctively called off Barton (thank God) on Kevin Cash's pop-up in shallow right.
  2. He ended a potential rally in the fifth with a slick play up the middle on Pedroia's fielder's choice.
  3. The real subtle beauty of the night:  After Ellsbury had cleanly stolen second in the 7th, Ellis held the tag for an extra moment to catch Ellsbury sliding too far past the bag.

Just typical, ho-hum Ellis:  understated brilliance with no flash.

On the offensive side

Frank the Tank hit his fourth bomb in four games.  Amazingly, our #3 and #4 hitters are being paid less than $750K by the A's this year...and yet, don't you love having them there, hitting back-to-back? 

Here's something I love about Frank:

In his postgame interview, the reporter noted Frank's 7 career bombs against Wakefield, and he replied, (I'm paraphrasing),

" Well, it was cold and windy tonight, and he didn't have the control he typically has. I told the guys that his knuckleball would be fluttering tonight and wouldn't have the same movement.  He's certainly gotten me plenty of times in my career though, I don't know how many times I've struck out against him."

Just says a ton about Frank right there and what he brings.    He's a class individual, an insightful, relevant interview, a great teammate who tries to give advice to young players rather than avoid them, and he's humble.  I'm so glad that, as young as our team is, that our 20-somethings get to watch Frank Thomas and Mike Sweeney every day at work. 

Our offense leaves plenty to be desired, and it's safe to say the lineup will continue be juggled.  But for the time being it's pretty obvious that everything else builds around that 3-4 combo, far and away our two best hitters at the moment and our only current threats to OPS .875 over a full year.

If Chavy can come back and turn back the clock a few years, that could be a very good L-R-L heart of the order in less than a week.  I'm pumped just thinking about it. 

I'll close with just one pessimistic thought (after all, we need something to complain and fret about):

The black hole at the top of the lineup continues to be at least a mild concern. 

Is it psychological?

I'd like to see Geren bring a lineup card to the umpire tomorrow that has slots 2-10 filled in rather than 1-9, and tell the boys we no longer have a leadoff hitter.  Barton of course is in the 10th slot...

...or perhaps Sacramento, once Chavy returns.  At this point I'd like to see Hannahan and Sweeney splitting time over there.   You just can't have a .650 OPS, subpar defensive first baseman.