Boy, did the Oakland Athletics need a win on Saturday. They just made a risky trade in which they dealt one of their most popular players, and the pitcher they got back was making his debut on the day when the stadium giveaway was a shirt commemorating the departed star. Meanwhile, the Angels were breathing down their necks, just one game back in the standings despite Oakland's MLB-best record. A win on Saturday wasn't literally essential in the long run, but it was necessary in the short term for the spirits of the team and fanbase alike in what is easily the most tumultuous part of an otherwise comfortable, dominant season.
Fortunately, everybody came through. Jon Lester turned in a quality start that was even better than the numbers suggest, Sam Fuld made an amazing throw to cut down a runner at home plate, and Jonny Gomes added two hits and scored the A's first run since Wednesday in an eventual 8-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals. Man, did that feel good. Confidence restored, sky holding in place above our heads.
The matchup seemed lopsided at the start, but so did the matchup against the Astros earlier in the week that resulted in a pair of A's losses. Oakland sent its new ace, Lester, the World Series hero and high-profile acquisition, against Kansas City's Jason Vargas, who is best described as a rich man's Tommy Milone. Lester has beaten top pitchers in the playoffs. Heck, he beat freaking cancer in a head-to-head matchup. Surely he could out-pitch Vargas and the perpetually struggling Royals. Surely, he could be the stopper.
Lester started out good-but-not great. Kansas City managed to collect a hit in each of the first two innings, and then manufactured a rally in the third to get runners to second and third with one out. Salvador Perez hit a sac fly to bring home one run, and suddenly it was looking like Friday all over again. Lester pitched around a "sun double" by Alex Gordon in the fourth -- it was a popout that Josh Donaldson couldn't find in the sun -- but still found himself trailing 1-0 after his first five frames.
While Lester was finding his groove, Vargas had his from the get-go. The soft-tossing lefty retired the first 12 batters he faced, giving him a perfect game through four innings. The natives grew restless. This is what happens when you trade my favorite player, said thousands of Oakland fans. The A's offense will stink without Yoenis Cespedes, they worried. But then, the fifth inning happened, and it turns out that everything is going to be OK.
Derek Norris led off with a double into the right-center gap. Jonny Gomes popped up, but designated hitter Billy Butler, who had wandered onto the field with a glove on for some reason, lost the ball in the sun and Gomes wound up with a "single." The BABIP gods giveth, and they taketh away. After Gordon's "double," this evened out the luck. Stephen Vogt attempted a sac bunt, but Vargas made a heads-up play to force out Norris at third. If you're wondering why Vogt wasn't swinging away, note that he is finally starting to cool off a bit -- he's now 0-for-his-last-14, dating back to Monday's game.
Then, just as we all started to worry that this would be yet another rally wasted, Alberto Callaspo came through. He knocked a single to center, and Gomes blazed around third to tie the score 1-1. The post-Cesedes A's had finally scored, after 13 innings worth of goose eggs. And they weren't done.
Josh Reddick followed by reaching down for a breaking ball and lining it to right for another RBI single. You guys, Reddick is back. He's officially remembered how to hit. His OPS is up to .719, and he's 13-for-35 with as many homers as strikeouts (two) since his return from his second DL stint. You want to know who's going to step up to replace Cespedes' production? Here's your guy, right here. Also, note that this hit came off a lefty.
Next up was Nick Punto, and he lined a single to right to bring in another run. Sam Fuld shook things up by dropping a perfect bunt on the right side of the infield, and he beat it out easily to load the bases. Need someone to replace Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry for a while? Fuld has already proven that he's the man for the job, and it's only been two days.
Jed Lowrie followed with yet another hit to make the score 4-1, but this one came with a cost. As Punto rounded third, his leg gave out from under him and he fell to the ground. He was able to scramble back to the base, but he left the game clutching the back of his thigh due to what we all assume is a pulled hamstring. No official word yet, but you should expect him to go on the 15-day DL to rest the muscle; this particular injury never goes away in just a day or two, and guys who try to play through it end up exacerbating the problem and missing even more time. Callaspo recently took the safe route after his own pulled hammy and he seems to be just fine now. Andy Parrino will likely be called up to replace Punto, and the debates will begin to roar over the potential for a waiver-wire trade to finally shore up the keystone.
But wait! The rally isn't over yet, even though Vargas' outing was. Aaron Crow came on in relief, and he walked Josh Donaldson to force in a run; the pitch was close, and it might have been a strike on Friday or even earlier in this game, but Donnie got the call. Norris struck out in his second at-bat of the inning, but Gomes came through with a legitimate line drive single to left with two outs. The ball scooted past Gold Glover Alex Gordon, the best left field defender in baseball, and the bases cleared as Gomes raced around to third. The score settled at 8-1, with the A's batting around for, I don't know, let's say the 90th time this season. (I think it's actually 24 times?)
Lester followed with his first 1-2-3 inning of the day to record the shutdown inning, but he ran into a bit of trouble in the seventh. Lorenzo Cain doubled to left, but Donaldson nearly made a diving play to spear it; the ball glanced off his glove. Nori Aoki later hit a single to knock him in, but Gomes nearly prevented it when he came up firing and delivered a nearly perfect throw home. I say "nearly perfect" because, although the ball was on target and easily beat the speedy Cain to the plate, it needed one bounce to get there and that short hop took a funny turn and got by Norris' glove. Gomes isn't known for his arm, but that was a heck of a toss. Someone named Christian Colon knocked another RBI single to bring the score to 8-3, but that was as close as the Royals got. Ryan Cook ended the rally and recorded a perfect eighth, and Jesse Chavez worked through a rocky relief debut to finish things off.
Before we get to the final notes, we simply must take a moment to talk about Sam Fuld. If you want to convince someone to start watching baseball, just show them some Fuld highlights. He. Is. Incredible. What he lacks in physical talent, he makes up for in effort, intelligence, and pure adrenaline. After Gordon's sun double, Cain moved him to third and Mike Moustakas lined a potential sac fly to center. Fuld caught the ball and used every ounce of his body to wing the ball home and cut down Gordon in a bang-bang play at the plate. Here's the video:
... and here it is in GIF form. Watch how his entire body goes airborne as he puts every single shred of force that he can behind the throw:
(h/t to Lana Berry for the Vine.)
Just amazing. Cespedes may have made that throw look easy, but Fuld made it nonetheless. There's the effort. For the intelligence, look no further than what he did in a similar situation in the seventh. With one run already in, Fuld fielded Colon's single and considered throwing home to make a play on Aoki at the plate. However, he held the ball. Why? Because the A's still had a five-run lead, the run was relatively meaningless, the play had a low-percentage chance of success, and keeping the trailing runner at first (and out of scoring position) was the best way to stifle the rally before it got out of hand. Just because you can make the play doesn't mean that it'll always work, and it doesn't mean that you should always go for it. That is heads-up baseball. Add on his brilliant bunt, both in terms of situational wisdom and flat-out execution, as well as his Friday performance that included a legit double and a walk, and it's easy to see what Fuld contributes to a team. He doesn't look like much, nor do his career numbers, but he's got it where it counts. Even David Eckstein won a World Series MVP award.
What about the other two new A's? I'll give Lester a B+ for his start -- he wasn't at his absolute best, which is when he strikes out hitters left and right, but he was generally cruising through six innings and had no problem working out of trouble. Yes, the Royals got to him in the seventh, but at that point he had a seven-run lead and the adrenaline of his debut start may have been wearing off; I don't believe in the concept of "pitching to the score" because I think pitchers try their hardest on every at-bat, but in this case I have no reason to hold those last two runs against him. He did exactly what he needed to do today, and the sweetest part was that this was not even him at his best. Not even close.
I also wouldn't worry about the perception that Lester might be unhappy to be here, or that he doesn't look excited enough. He showed some fire with a shout and a fist pump after Fuld's throw, and as he left the field to a standing ovation in the seventh he offered a tip of the cap to his new home fans. In his post-game interview, I thought he just seemed like a generally low-key guy; it therefore comes as no surprise that he's not bouncing off the walls with a smile ear to ear after being traded for the first time in his life. It was just more business; maybe not business as usual, but business nonetheless. Bip Roberts offered some soothing words after the game, noting that Lester is just a straight-up professional who goes about his job and doesn't get caught up in too much else. That's a good thing. We could use a pitching robot like that. It reminds me of Bartolo Colon, but without the goofy smile and the tossing of the ball up and down when he was bored in between pitches.
For Gomes, I'll give him a B+ as well. Any higher grade would have required a home run, but he did deliver a huge hit in the fifth (in addition to his lucky one that helped start the rally) and he looked good on defense between the throw home and another deep ball that he tracked down at the wall after a long run. He's no Cespedes, but he's a perfectly adequate replacement.
Chavez gave up some good contact in the ninth and walked a batter, but let's give him a couple games to adapt to his new role. He hasn't been a reliever since last year, and I'm sure it takes some getting used to. I have a feeling that he is going to play a big role out of the pen down the stretch. Starters don't often get worse when they become short relievers and only have to throw an inning or two at a time, especially ones who have already had success in relief roles.
Donaldson and Vogt were the only two starters who didn't collect hits, and Donnie had his bases-loaded walk while Vogt made a couple nice plays at first base (one of which showed Lester's athleticism getting to the bag ahead of the fleet-footed Alcides Escobar).
Good news, everyone. The A's are still the best team in baseball, just with a slightly different look. The offense can still hum, the defense can still make exciting plays and laser throws, and the pitching is just out of this world. All is well in Oakland.
Editor's note: I don't want it to sound like I'm ripping on Cespedes. I love him just as much as you all do. I'm still sad he's gone. But as I analyze the game on the field, it is both relevant and inevitable to gauge what we had vs. what we now have, especially in the wake of massive public disapproval toward his departure. My goal is simply to show how his absence doesn't destroy the team, and how his production can be replaced or even improved upon. He was not the best player on the team, and his replacements aren't chopped liver.
The rubber game is tomorrow. First pitch is 1:05 p.m., Kazmir vs. Shields. The A's are starting their second All-Star pitcher of the series, and there's still one more who won't go until Monday. That is ridiculous. Jeremy will have your thread.