The Oakland Athletics finally stumbled for the first time in 2014. They were swept at home by the division rival Texas Rangers, and they split a four-game set against the last-place Houston Astros. The good news is, Sonny Gray started Week 5 with a shutout on the road in Arlington to deliver some payback to the Rangers, but we'll talk more about that in next week's review. The A's entered Monday at 15-10, tied with the Rangers and Yankees for the best record in the AL, and they are now in sole possession of the top spot again after earning their 16th victory.
What made last week hurt the most was that it was so close to going much better. Oakland frittered away two contests against the Rangers, once by squandering a chance to hang a loss on Yu Darvish and once by straight-up blowing a save in the ninth. Against Houston, the A's cut a four-run deficit down to one and had the tying run on second with one out, but couldn't finish the comeback. Then, they nearly got shut out by an unknown rookie in the finale. On the bright side, this rough week only cost them the cushion they had over the rest of the league rather than dropping them down the standings.
On offense, Josh Donaldson led the way with a line of .296/.441/.704, with three homers, two doubles, and seven walks to only three strikeouts. Derek Norris chipped in by going 8-for-12 with three doubles and three walks; he has a .987 OPS for the season. On the downside, Eric Sogard and Daric Barton are still not hitting much, Alberto Callaspo and Coco Crisp are starting to cool off after their huge starts, and Yoenis Cespedes missed the last three games in Houston due to a minor hamstring injury. On the pitching side, Jesse Chavez finally had his first poor start and Sean Doolittle picked up a pair of losses in relief. Fortunately, this review is a bit less painful to write knowing that Gray put the team back on the right track on Monday. Here are a few stories of note from the last week.
Bullpen woes continue
There's more to a team than its bullpen, but it was difficult to ignore the negative effect that the relievers had on the A's fortunes this week. The overall performance was fine, but runs leaked through when it mattered the most. On Monday, the first game in Oakland against the Rangers, it was Doolittle who entered in the eighth to preserve a tie and surrendered the go-ahead (and eventual winning) run. The next night, Luke Gregerson failed to protect a one-run lead in the ninth and took both the blown save and the loss. On Saturday, Doolittle entered another tie game and gave up four runs; he took the loss when the A's could only answer with three of their own. On Sunday, Dan Otero served up the first home run of his Major League career after keeping it in the park for 63⅔ innings.
The news isn't all bad, though. Jim Johnson, Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook and Drew Pomeranz combined to spin 10⅔ scoreless innings of relief last week. Abad's numbers for the season look like Mariano Rivera serving a rehab stint in the minors: 10 innings, 11 strikeouts, two hits, two walks, 0.00 ERA. Johnson's ERA is down to 5.73 (hey, at least it's only three digits now) and he's still striking out more than a batter per inning.
I still don't think we're in any kind of panic mode here, even though it would be easy to lose faith. I don't think anyone is hurt, I don't think anyone has lost their talent or ability. This is almost certainly a small-sample fluke, but it's now on Bob Melvin to figure out a system that will work for this group. If that means putting everyone back in traditional roles, then so be it. I still haven't given up on the closer-by-committee concept, but I'd rather try it out sometime when every single win isn't crucial. The A's have the personnel for an elite bullpen in the traditional set-up, so there's no need to take risks to try to gain an advantage here. That's what you do when you can't afford (or find at all) a reliable closer and set-up men, but the A's have those things. They employ platoons because it's the only way to get 162 games of production on their budget, but they don't need to get creative to have a top bullpen. This is something of a backtrack for me in this case, but let's see how the relievers do in normal roles for a month and then reevaluate. The one nontraditional concept I would support, as laid out by Nico in his article on Sunday (linked above), is letting guys go two innings at a time if they are on their games; why pull a guy when he just burned through a quick 1-2-3 inning?
Josh Donaldson gets hot
Donaldson started out cold in the first week of the season, upgraded to lukewarm shortly thereafter, and then got hot last week. His 1.145 OPS for the week (plus his two-run single on Monday of Week 5) raised his season totals to .277/.341/.545; his seven home runs are tied for third in the AL (fourth in MLB), and his 22 RBI are tied for fourth in the league and seventh in the Majors, with Brandon Moss right on his heels in sixth in the AL with 20 ribbies. That is probably the only time all season that I will acknowledge RBI in an article. On the downside, Dondaldson also made his sixth error when he threw the ball several feet over Daric Barton's head to allow a pair of runs to score; he leads all Major League third basemen in that category.
On one hand, Donaldson's three dingers were all against the Astros. On the other hand, they were all absolute bombs.
Most importantly, though, Donaldson's plate discipline stats are starting to even out. Through Monday's game in Arlington, he has walked 11 times to 24 strikeouts. Both rates are a bit worse than last year's (walk rate is 8.9 percent, down from 11.4 percent last year; strikeout rate is 19.5 percent, up from 16.5 percent last year), but he is now in a perfectly acceptable zone and is trending in the right direction. Josh Donaldson is for real, you guys. And he's clearly Oakland's best hitter.
Oh, and don't let those errors get you down too much. He can still do this:
It's not every day that you score seven runs in an inning. And it's even rarer when you do it in the ninth inning of a tie game. This rally took a close thriller and turned it into a laugher.
Jesse Chavez struggles, finally
Chavez finally had a stinker. He looked off, his pitches seemed hittable, and for the first time this year he deserved his no-decision. His line for the day?
Jesse Chavez, April 25 at Houston: 5 innings, 5 runs (4 earned), 8 hits, 2 walks, 5 strikeouts.
Hey, that's ... not really all that bad. I mean, it's not a quality start, but it's not a disaster start either. He allowed a bunch of hits, and they were mostly legitimate rather than the grounder-with-eyes variety. But he didn't walk a bunch of batters and he didn't allow a home run in a park where you only need to hit it 315 feet to leave the building. You can look at this start and say that Chavez was bound to take a step back eventually. I look at this and realize that if this is what Chavez looks like when he's off, then he's going to have a very good year.
Brandon Moss makes history
Moss set an Athletics franchise record by getting hit twice in the same inning on Friday in Houston. He was hit by Josh Fields to lead off the frame, and by Anthony Bass after the A's had batted around.
In fairness, this video of Moss's batting practice regimen does explain a lot:
Brandon Moss sings and dances
You really need to watch this if you haven't seen it already. Skip ahead to the nine-minute mark for the performance.
When I went to the kitchen to eat breakfast this morning, Josh Reddick threw me out before I could get to the fridge. From Texas.
Just another day in the life of Coco Crisp.
We already have Josh Reddick as Spiderman, and now I guess Coco is Superman since he's faster than a speeding bullet and he can apparently fly. Somehow that leaves Batman out despite this being a sport in which one of the key pieces of equipment is called a bat.