Now that was the week that the Oakland Athletics needed. After hitting a bit of a snag at the end of July, the A's put together a 5-2 record last week against the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins. They weren't able to finish off the series sweeps against either team in the respective finales, but they won enough to increase their division lead over the Angels to four games. That good fortune was helped along by a struggling Angels lineup that scored 13 runs in its last six games -- and really, seven games' worth of innings, since one of those contests went 19 frames -- en route to dropping five of six. Hey, look, other teams go through slumps also. The A's record stands at 72-45.
On offense, the heavy lifting was done by ... Eric Sogard? Really? Huh. Did not see that one coming. Keebs went 7-for-17 (.412/.583/.647) with a double and a homer (his first of the year!), while drawing seven walks and striking out only four times. Josh Donaldson went 9-for-25 with a few laser doubles, and Stephen Vogt bounced back from his 0-for-23 skid to swat a pair of homers. Sam Fuld went 6-for-24 with a couple walks and four stolen bases, which is wonderfully acceptable production from a stud defender, but Josh Reddick cooled off a bit -- 4-for-26 with two doubles, though on the bright side he struck out only once.
The pitching staff was led by the new guys. Jon Lester threw a shutout in his second start as an Athletic, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out eight Twins. Jason Hammel, who was awful in his first four starts for Oakland, rebounded with two solid outings in which he gave up just one total run in 12 innings. Jeff Samardzija also made a pair of quality starts. Sean Doolittle, Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, and Eric O'Flaherty combined to toss 8⅓ scoreless innings with 12 strikeouts and only one walk.
Here are the main stories from last week.
Sonny Gray: AL Pitcher of the Month, again
Sonny was money in July. He made five starts -- against the Blue Jays, Giants, Mariners, Orioles, and Rangers -- and won all five of them. Each outing ranged from 6⅔ innings to 7⅔, for a total of 35 frames. In that time, he allowed four total earned runs, never more than one in a single game, for an ERA of 1.03. His 31 strikeouts to 12 walks weren't world-beating, but he made up for them by allowing only one home run. Of course, keeping the ball in the park is nothing new for Sonny, as he's served up only nine dingers in 150⅓ innings this season.
Sonny also won Pitcher of the Month in April, so he's now the first A's pitcher since Barry Zito (Aug. and Sept. 2001) to receive the honor twice in one season. The other two AL awards this year went to Masahiro Tanaka (May) and Felix Hernandez (June). In the NL, Clayton Kershaw won for the second straight month. The last non-Gray A's pitcher to win was Bartolo Colon in June '13, and before that you have to go back to Dan Haren in May '07 and ... Esteban Loaiza, in Aug. '06? Didn't see that one coming either.
Oh, what a relief it is
In the eighth inning of Saturday's game, Dan Otero allowed two runs to score. Those runs were insignificant in the team's 9-4 victory, but they did signal the end of a 29⅔-inning scoreless streak by Oakland's bullpen. That streak represents an Oakland record, though not an Athletics franchise record:
Consec. Scoreless IP by #Athletics Bullpen (since 1914) 44.0 9/3-20, 1966 34.0 9/10-10/1, 1944 30.2 9/1-21, 1929 29.2 7/28-8/9, 2014— Mike Selleck (@MikeSelleck) August 10, 2014
Still, though, this is what we were envisioning when we giggled over Oakland's stacked relief corps during the spring. This was supposed to be one of the best units in baseball, and even with Jim Johnson dragging the numbers down they still rank fifth in the Majors in bullpen ERA (2.89). And now, they've put together the best run in Oakland history. It's nice when things work out the way they're supposed to.
Hammel no longer in hot water?
A's fans were not happy with their first impression of starting pitcher Jason Hammel. Actually, they weren't happy with their first four impressions of the hurler after his acquisition from the Cubs. He racked up an ERA of 9.53 in losing his first four starts, but he bounced back in a big way last week.
In Hammel's first outing, against the Rays, he gutted through 5⅔ innings without allowing a run. Granted, he allowed 11 baserunners and scientists are still trying to determine how he avoided letting any of them cross the plate, but he pulled it off. In his next game, threw 6⅓ real-life, honest-to-god good innings against the Twins. Before you cry "last-place team," remember that the Twins came into the game with the 12th-most runs scored in the Majors, and represented the second-toughest opponent Hammel had faced as an Athletic. He made it out of that game with five strikeouts and only two walks, with his only blemish a solo homer hit by Brian Dozier.
Hammel's numbers with Oakland are still ugly -- 5.90 ERA, 19 strikeouts to 16 walks, six homers in 29 innings. But they're getting better, and his most recent start was by far his best. Perhaps he can still end up closer to a delicious honey-glazed ham than a big bowl of hot ham water.
Elf On Fire
Eric Sogard's successful week was already detailed in the intro, but he merits another mention. He was ice-cold at the plate in the first half of the season, but he's simply on fire right now.
It's tough to pick a highlight of the week for him. His two-run double in the sixth inning Friday seemed meaningless at the time, as it made the score 6-0, but it proved to be the game-winner when the Twins rallied for five runs in the next frame. His home run against Jeremy Hellickson was the only run the A's scored off the Rays starter:
And then, on Saturday, he drew walks in his first four plate appearances, a record for an Oakland No. 9 hitter. If you're a fan of plate discipline like I am, then you'll like his season line of 25 walks to 27 strikeouts. And while that .577 OPS is low, remember that it was at .486 at the All-Star break and really only needs to be above .600 for Sogard to be a legitimate MLB starter and a pretty good player, thanks to his good defense at a weak position.
Meet Olmedo, the Oakland Athletics #rallypossum.
A's fans needed a confidence boost after a couple weeks of an inept Oakland offense, and their nine-run outburst against Trevor May and the Twins (in his MLB debut) was just what the doctor ordered. We soon found out the driving force behind the resurgent offense -- the magical rally powers of one little marsupial.
Hot takes from my mother, who sent me this email during the game:
I saw the possum on TV just before Sogard walked for the 4th time. He is SOOOOO cute!
And, the ensuing meme:
Of course, that wasn't the only factor behind the lineup's big week. On Monday, there was also elven magic afoot, or, abeard:
Or, maybe MLB's leading offense is just full of good hitters.
Gold Collar Baseball
If Josh Donaldson doesn't win the Gold Glove this year, then why are we even playing this silly game?
To rage or not to rage?
Grant Balfour returned to Oakland last week, and this was the welcome that he got from A's fans:
A massive fan favorite returned to the Coliseum for the first time, in a key situation in extra innings, and the Oakland faithful gave him a warm welcome in a wonderful display of sportsmanship and overall humanity. Shooty Babitt didn't sound thrilled that the fans cheered an opponent, and Damon Bruce of the A's supposed flagship radio station was outraged. Bruce went off on A's fans, which seems to be a routine thing for the station that is supposed to serve them, and made it clear that there is only one correct way to watch baseball and that it's his way.
I honestly don't see the problem. A's fans freaking loved Balfour. I don't expect Bruce to understand that, since he clearly doesn't watch the actual games -- he didn't even know if they'd played Balfour's old walkup song (they most definitely did not; it was "Seek and Destroy" by Metallica rather than "One"), which is funny to me since his argument was largely based around the crucial importance of the game and yet he couldn't even be bothered to look up a highlight video of it the next afternoon, much less view the actual contest itself.
How much did A's fans love Balfour? They had a literal song and dance for him every single time he played. How many other MLB players have that in their home parks? Heck, how many A's players have that? Maybe Coco with the Bernie Lean (and that's a stretch, since it's not his walk-up), Reddick and Careless Whisper, and Vogt's "I Believe" chant? And how many of your friends who follow the A's were devastated when Balfour left for Tampa Bay last winter? I'm going to guess most of them. I don't really care if it was a big spot in a game in early August. I care even less that Balfour never won a World Series here, or isn't a Hall of Famer. A's fans, and particularly those right field bleacher fans (who Bruce writes off as attention suckers who shift the focus away from the game, which I couldn't disagree with more), were emotionally attached to Balfour and his own wild emotions. If they want to give him one final salute in his return to the home that made him an All-Star, then fine. It could be right, or it could be wrong, but everyone gets to enjoy baseball in their own way and nobody, least of all A's-hater Damon Bruce, can tell them otherwise.
Shame on you, Damon, for ripping on the exact fanbase you are supposed to be representing. You missed the mark on this one badly.
(Troy Clardy is cool, though, for the record.)