The Oakland Athletics were one strike away from completing their sixth series sweep of the season, but they couldn't quite wrap things up against the Rays on Thursday. Still, they are 5-1 on their current road trip, which concludes with three games against the Toronto Blue Jays. The A's still lead the Majors with 30 wins, a .638 winning percentage, and a plus-96 run differential, and their lead in the latter category has actually increased as the Tigers and Rockies have each dropped back below plus-50 (Colorado is second at plus-48). Their Pythagorean record is 34-13, which is actually four games better than their MLB-best record. Dropping the finale in Tampa Bay sucked, but if you lose one out of every three games then you'll be the best team in baseball.
These are the expected pitching matchups for the series:
Fri: Scott Kazmir vs. Liam Hendriks
Sat: Jesse Chavez vs. R.A. Dickey
Sun: Drew Pomeranz vs. J.A. Happ
The A's will face a pair of pitchers who use initials as their first names. More like the Toronto B.J.'s, am I right? Wait, that came out differently than I ... never mind. Check out the Q&A below for more on each of Toronto's starters. For the A's, Scott Kazmir will try to last more than four outs without getting ejected, Jesse Chavez will face one of his many former teams, and Drew Pomeranz will look to extend his scoreless streak for a fourth straight start. The Rogers Centre is playing as the third-best hitter's park in baseball and the third-best home run park, so expect to see some scoring in this series. And the Jays are in first place in the AL East, just like we all expected at the beginning of 2013.
1. Adam Lind was great in 2009, then he was different shades of bad for three years, and then he was pretty good again last season. Now he's off to a fantastic start in 2014. Are you confident that he'll stay good this time around? What went so wrong from 2010-2012?
TD: Much if it is that he's finally got a manager that understands that he shouldn't play against LHP. He's always been good against right-handers, but if your mom could throw left-handed, he'd ground out to second base.
I think he's also got a hitting coach whose philosophy works for him. Cito Gaston and former hitting coach Dwayne Murphy believed hitters should go up looking to pull everything. That worked well for guys like Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, but Lind, I think, is better when he is looking to go the other way with the pitch.
I also think he is more confident than he used to be. He knows that if he goes 0-for-4, he's not going to be sent back to the minors. He's always had that pretty swing but he looks more confident that he is going to make good contact.
2. What's the injury status of Colby Rasmus? Will he be playing in this series? And if not, who is taking his place in center field?
TD: Colby has a tight hamstring. He had an MRI a couple of days ago and it confirmed it wasn't anything more serious than that. He went on the DL on May 13th, and likely will be back at the end of the month. Replacing Colby in center, we have a platoon of callups Anthony Gose and Kevin Pillar.
Gose, the LH half, has been a breath of fresh air. He's fast, he's very smooth in center field, has great range (far better than Rasmus) and he's looked much more relaxed at the plate than any of the other half dozen times he's been up with the Jays. He's taking pitches, working the count and he's had a couple of bunt singles. His slash line looks very impressive, .304/.484/.435 (small sample size warnings). He's also stolen two bases. It's a bit of a surprise, because he wasn't hitting in the minors, .236/.317/.336 at Triple-A Buffalo.
Pillar hasn't been quite as impressive. He's not quite as good in center, though he has decent range. His bat has been lacking, though he had three hits Thursday against the Red Sox. He's hitting .278/.278/.333 in 18 at-bats. He's chasing pitches outside the zone. I'm hoping Thursday's game is a sign he is relaxing. He was great in the minors, .305/.344/.461, and he had a .405 average over his last 10 games in Buffalo. He's always been able to hit at every level of the minors, so I'm hoping he'll get enough at bats to figure things out here.
3. Second base has been a mess for the Blue Jays. They have given at-bats to Ryan Goins, Maicer Izturis, and Chris Getz, among others. Now they've moved third baseman Brett Lawrie over to the keystone. How is he transitioning defensively? And what's it going to take for him to finally put it together at the plate?
TD: I'd likely add a less than family friendly adjective in front of the word mess.
Lawrie has plenty of range to play second and he hasn't been bad there. I think he's much better suited for the hot corner, since he is such a bundle of fast-twitch, Red Bull-fueled energy that sometimes he's in too big a hurry to get rid of the ball at second.
I think he's always going to be a streak hitter. His swing is such a mess of nervous tics and twitches that, when he's out of sync, it takes a while to find his timing again. That said, he's just turned 24 and there is a lot of talent there. I think he'll be a good player, maybe not the star we hoped, but still a good player.
Journeyman Steve Tolleson has been sharing time at second with Lawrie, in a complicated platoon. Against RHP Lawrie plays 2B and Juan Francisco plays (or at least stands at) 3B. Against lefties it is Lawrie at 3B and Tolleson at 2B. Tolleson is hitting a decent (relative to the others we've had at second) .242/.324/.485. (Editor's note: Tolleson was an Oakland Athletic in 2010!)
Brett Lawrie, summed up in one picture. Photo credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
4. Lawrie's move opened up room at third for minor league free agent Juan Francisco, who has a .987 OPS so far. Is he the next great reclamation-project-slugger in Toronto, following in the footsteps of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, or is he just a flash in the pan?
TD: He's got eight home runs in just 105 plate appearances, but he is striking out 34 percent of the time. Personally I don't know why anyone would throw the guy a fastball, he really doesn't seem to like bendy stuff. Or maybe he likes it too much. Rarely does he let one pass by without swinging at it, no matter how far off the plate. He has had 800 MLB at-bats, and has shown decent power, but the strikeouts have been a problem. I'm not overly hopeful that he's figured it all out, but I'm happy to ride the wave for as long as it lasts. His defense will not remind you of Brooks Robinson.
5. Melky Cabrera is trying to move on from his PED drama, and Jose Reyes is trying to prove that he's still worth $22 million. How is each player doing this year? (Editor's note: Did anyone else realize that Melky isn't even 30 years old yet?)
TD: Melky has been great. He's been hitting the ball hard almost every game and has a .320/.363/.520 line going into the series against the A's. Last year, he looked terrible. Slower than any player you've ever seen. He really looked like he was dragging a piano behind him, then they found a tumor around his spine. This season he is a different man. He's still not fast, but he no longer reminds you of Tim Conway doing his old man bit (topical reference, I know). He's stolen four bases. Last year, if he had tried to steal a base, the catcher wouldn't have needed to throw to second, he could have just walked the ball to second and waited there for Melky to arrive. He still doesn't show a lot of range in LF -- I'd like to see him move to DH in the not-too-distant future -- but if he hits the way he has been, I'm OK with the sub-par range.
Reyes missed time at the start of the season with hamstring tightness and it has taken some time for his bat to get started. He's been much better over the last couple of weeks, hitting .318/.388/.568 in 11 games. He's still a pretty dynamic player, when he is healthy. Unfortunately, he hasn't been healthy enough of the time. His defense is lacking; at some point they are going to have to move him from shortstop.
6. R.A. Dickey was very mediocre last year after winning the NL Cy Young in 2012. He's almost exactly as mediocre so far this year, but with more walks. Is Dickey just a league-average starter now, or are you still hoping to see some of that Cy Young upside?
TD: Dickey has been very good through five or six innings, but he seems to tire very suddenly after six innings and our manager, John Gibbons, has been slow to notice this pattern. In the seventh inning of his starts, he has a 23.62 ERA. Now, it is a small sample size, but to compare, in the first four innings his ERA is 2.48. He's a knuckleball pitcher, and those guys are supposed to be throw nine innings in their sleep, but R.A. is 39 now. And he isn't the normal knuckleball pitcher; he throws harder than your grandfather's knuckleballer. It makes sense to me that he would tire quicker. Gibbons is going to have to learn to notice the signs that he is tiring. They are subtle signs, like balls rocketing off outfield fences. Not everyone would notice.
7. Apart from Dickey and the red-hot Mark Buehrle, who else is healthy and in the rotation? Who else is currently hurt but likely to contribute later this year?
TD: Amazingly, we only have one injured starter, Brandon Morrow, and I'm not expecting him back.
Our other three starters (at the moment) are:
Drew Hutchison, who I think will be the ace of the staff by the end of the season. He's coming off missing almost all of last season after Tommy John surgery. He had the first complete game of his career last Friday, getting a shutout and giving up just 3 hits. Thursday, he didn't go as deep into the game, but he allowed the Red Sox just one run in 5⅔ innings.
Liam Hendriks got called up from Buffalo for tomorrow's start. I can't tell you much about him, other than he is Australian, which I assume means he has excellent knife recognition skills and will come in from the bullpen in the pouch of a kangaroo. Beyond that, all I know is that he's been good in Buffalo this season, with a 5-0 record and a 1.48 ERA in nine games, seven starts.
J.A. Happ isn't my favorite pitcher. He tends to nibble at the edges of the strike zone, building up his pitch count and his walk totals. That said, he hasn't been awful. He's made four starts since rejoining the rotation and he is 3-1 with a 4.42 ERA. Not awful.
8. How are relievers Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar doing this year after being selected as All-Stars in 2013? And who else should A's fans look out for in the bullpen?
TD: Steve Delabar has been very good, holding batters to a .188/.300/.319 line this year, with 18 strikeouts in 1923 innings. But then, not quite as good as the game in Oakland last year, when he had the immaculate inning (and I was at the game). Cecil hasn't been as good, but still can get lefties out.
The good news for us is that Casey Janssen is finally back from the DL. He's had five saves in the 10 days since being activated and has allowed just four singles and one walk in his six innings of work. It has been great having him back because we've blown too many games in the late innings.
9. Oakland's new pitcher, Jeff Francis, is also from Canada. Do you know him?
TD: Why yes, we all know each other up here. There are really only seven of us in the country. He's my brother's neighbour's cousin's nephew.
10. Can you please write me a haiku about either Bautista or Encarnacion, whichever one you love more?
The player who's so much fun
He has a theme song
Thank you, Tom, for participating in the Q&A!
The series kicks off in two hours. First pitch is scheduled for 4:07 p.m., Kazmir vs. Hendriks (Canada Time is two minutes behind Eastern Time, presumably because the hands on the clocks freeze in the snow for two minutes every day). Kyle Blanks is getting the start as the DH, batting ninth, to keep John Jaso fresh for the day game tomorrow. The fact that it's Blanks over Alberto Callaspo suggests to me that Callaspo's hot streak is officially over and Melvin no longer feels the need to squeeze him into the lineup every single day. Meanwhile, Melvin will miss today's game while attending his daughter's graduation.