When we look back on 2014, last week will end up representing one of two things. It will either be a brief breath of fresh air amid the larger second-half collapse of the Oakland Athletics, or it will be the moment when things turned back around and the A's rediscovered their path to October.
The week began with the A's losing three out of four games to a Chicago White Sox team that had already more or less given up on the season; heck, Oakland's lineup featured one of Chicago's best hitters (Adam Dunn), acquired a couple weeks ago in a salary dump. When they lost their first game to the Seattle Mariners on Friday, it felt like rock bottom was in sight. Felix was looming next, and a loss would have knocked the A's out of the Wild Card lead. However, the team rallied back, withstood Felix, and won the game. Then they won again the next day. Confused A's fans, not used to back-to-back favorable outcomes, wondered if the second win was just a rerun of the previous day's game. In the end Oakland salvaged a 3-4 week -- that doesn't sound impressive, but it could have been much worse.
There weren't any hitters who really set themselves apart this week, but there also weren't many who sucked at noteworthy levels either. Josh Reddick struggled, but he also hit a clutch game-tying home run in Monday's game. Brandon Moss finally homered, for the first time since July 24, but he didn't do much else. The dinger ended a futile streak of 151 plate appearances over 39 homerless games. Sam Fuld, Jed Lowrie, and Josh Donaldson added longs balls of their own, with Donaldson's coming off of Felix.
The real story was the starting pitching. The A's allowed more than two runs in only two games last week, and their opponents notched only 16 runs total in the seven contests. Oakland got six quality starts in seven tries; Jason Hammel went only five innings with three runs, but one of those came on a pop-up to no-man's-land in shallow left that got lost in the lights and dropped for a gift RBI double. Sonny Gray, Jon Lester, and Scott Kazmir each turned in eight-inning outings, and Sonny one-upped the others by out-dueling Felix in his. Jeff Samardzija went seven scoreless in his only start. Indeed, the rotation is firing on all cylinders and is the one part of the team that is currently strong. Oh, the irony.
Here are the main stories from last week.
Was that rock bottom?
The problem with searching for rock bottom is that you can never be sure if you're there yet. I think that losing to Felix to drop out of the playoff picture would have qualified, but that didn't happen. However, if things do truly turn around in this last handful of regular season games, then the White Sox series could prove to be that symbolic low point.
The A's got to Chicago having dropped two of three at home to both the Astros (bad team) and the Mariners (the team chasing them in the standings). The last game of that Houston series was the five-walk blown save, which was arguably the worst loss I've ever seen. Our boys followed that up on Monday by taking a 3-2 lead to the ninth inning, with two outs, with two strikes, before Eric O'Flaherty served up a game-tying home run to Tyler Freaking Flowers. Then Flowers came back in the 12th to finish the job with another solo shot, this one of the walk-off variety. A back-breaking loss like that is bad enough without coming at the hands of a catcher with a career OPS+ of 82.
Oakland won on Tuesday in an 11-2 rout, but the hope was quickly dashed on Wednesday. The A's took another small lead, this time carrying a 1-0 advantage into the eighth. This time, it was the defense that faltered. Carlos Sanchez led off with a ground ball to Sogard; it was going to be a tough play, but I think Sogard makes it most of the time. This time, he clanked it off his glove and Sanchez was awarded a generous single. As I watched the game, there was no doubt in my mind that the leadoff runner would come around to score, based on how things have been going lately. Adam Eaton followed with a ground ball to Nate Freiman at first. It would have been difficult or impossible to double up the speedy Eaton on the play, but Freiman failed to get even the lead runner as his throw sailed into left field. Luke Gregerson stepped up to strike out the next two batters, including Jose Abreu, but Avisail Garcia ultimately delivered the knockout punch by dropping a single into center field to plate both runners. The A's had blown their second save of the series to a crappy team.
They didn't blow a save on Thursday, but that's because they couldn't score a run against Chris Sale. The White Sox ended up winning 1-0 on a home run by Berkeley native Marcus Semien. He's never played on the Athletics, but I wonder if just being from the Bay Area (he went to St. Mary's High School and UC Berkeley) is enough to satisfy the Curse of the Former A's. It's the best way to explain a 1-0 loss on a dinger by the opponent's No. 9 hitter.
The loss on Thursday led to this unfortunate statistic:
Each of the A's last seven losses have been by one run, which matches the longest such streak in #Athletics history (dating back to 1901).— Mike Selleck (@MikeSelleck) September 11, 2014
A historical run of one-run losses in the heat of an early-September pennant race? If that's not rock bottom, then I don't want to know what is.
On the bright side, things got better.
Slaying the Dragon, Part 1
Felix Hernandez has faced the A's six times this year. In three of those starts, he went at least eight innings and allowed only one or two runs. In another, he struck out 11 over seven frames for another victory. And once in May, the A's actually managed to knock him out in the seventh inning after scoring four runs (three earned); sadly, the bullpen coughed up that game and Oakland missed a chance to break serve against the King. In the first five Felix starts, the Mariners were 5-0. Oakland had last beaten him on Sept. 27, 2013, and even then he threw a quality start of six innings and three runs. His last non-quality start against the A's came on Sept. 7, 2012.
So, when King Felix takes the mound, A's fans are right to mostly lose hope. History shows us that there just hasn't been much against this particular opponent. They have their way with Yu Darvish, they beat Chris Sale twice in 2013, and they've even vanquished Justin Verlander and the rest of the Tigers' stacked rotation in the last couple regular seasons. But King Felix has been unbeatable.
(Video: There's no better feeling than seeing your best beat their best.)
The A's didn't technically beat Felix, and he ended up going seven frames with only two runs allowed. But Sonny Gray did to him what he did to Verlander in Game 2 last year -- he outlasted him. After Felix was done, Sonny went out and pitched the eighth. Oakland had withstood a vintage Felix start and come out the other side with a chance to win.
And then, something weird happened. It was deja vu all over again, but in a way that felt like flipping the great coin of karma to its other side. Fernando Rodney, possibly the douchiest closer in the game based on the horrifically cheesy, unsportsmanlike celebration pose he strikes after converting a save, entered to preserve the 2-2 tie ... and he blew the save without allowing a hit, just as Oakland had done the previous Sunday. He walked Coco Crisp, Donaldson, and Alberto Callaspo to load the bases, and then he walked Lowrie to force in the go-ahead run. Four walks, no hits, one run, save blown.
If you're superstitious or spiritual or anything in between, you might find comfort in the symmetry here. The loss to the Astros left a bad taste and seemed to embody all that was the wrong with the team -- sloppy play, wild pitching, late-inning collapses. To turn around and immediately win a game in the same bizarre fashion demonstrated all that was right -- the patient hitters working counts, the resilient lineup refusing to give up, a reward for a strong pitching performance against a top opponent. More importantly, it felt like it released the A's from their curse. You don't lose like that unless everything is broken, and you don't win like that unless your cold streak is wearing off. It might prove to be an aberration if the A's go right back to losing this week, but if this team turns things around then this will be the game that did it. With any luck, maybe the Mariners picked up the bad juju after the A's dumped it on their field.
Slaying the Dragon, Part 2
It had been 39 games. He'd taken 151 plate appearances. And then on Sunday, in the 40th game, in the 152nd time in the batter's box, Brandon Moss finally got the world's largest monkey off his back.
Want more proof that the curse was broken on Saturday? There you go. It's too early to tell yet, but man, it sure looks like our boys are back.
We missed you, Doo
Still not convinced that things are turning around? On Friday, still facing that historic streak of one-run losses (which included three blown saves), Sean Doolittle returned from the DL. With no time to waste, he jumped right back into the fire on Saturday when he came on in the 10th to seal the victory in Rodney's meltdown game.
OK, so that highlight wasn't exactly impressive. That was a couple dozen feet short of a game-tying home run. But Doo faced six batters between Saturday and Sunday and he needed only 21 pitches to retire all six of them. His three strikeouts raised his season total to 83 against five walks. I kinda forgot how ridiculous he's been this year while he was gone -- 83 strikeouts to five walks.
My god, we missed you Doo.
The Legend of Sam Fuld
If you're still not sure why the A's paid big to get Fuld, here is a quick rundown of what he brings to the table. Start with his defense.
That ball was going out, and he saved a homer. He can also make plays coming in.
Then consider what he can do with his legs (and his smarts) on offense.
And then remember that he has enough muscle to pop one out from time to time.
When the A's get knocked out of the playoffs, we sometimes hear about how they lacked grittiness and/or the will to win. Sam Fuld is those things in human form. He's the guy who will make the big play in the field, or manufacture that crucial run in a tight game. He is one embodiment of the stat/scout debate, a guy whose numbers look underwhelming but who seems to be in the middle of every good thing that happens on the field. If the A's do make a run in October, I'll bet that Fuld is the hero in at least one playoff victory.
The need for Sam Fuld
And it's a good thing Billy Beane went and got Fuld, too. Coco Crisp has continued to miss time here and there with his neck problem, and although Craig Gentry returned from his broken hand he's gone right back on the shelf with a nasty concussion.
I'm not sure why the Sanchez thought he could run through the bag perpindicular to Gentry's route without colliding with him, but I guess he was too focused on John Danks' embarrassingly bad feed from 30 feet away. It was an example of some terrible Chicago defense coming back to haunt the A's. Gentry didn't help matters by hitting the base awkwardly with his foot and losing a bit of balance, so this just appeared to be a matter of too many strong human beings moving too quickly toward each other with not enough focus on where the others were. And the result is that Gentry has missed some time with no idea of when he might return.
Good thing the A's have Fuld around to lead off and play center field and just grit the absolute hell out of things, as those needs arise.
Three happy highlights
OK, that was a downer. Let's end on a positive note. Or three.
No. 1: Your weekly Josh Donaldson Gold Glove watch. Does anyone else wonder if Donaldson might be able to handle shortstop in a pinch?
No. 2: Billy Burns' first Major League hit.
No. 3: Reddick and Lowrie go back-to-back in Chicago.
Hopefully that last one will blast some positive vibes into Week 25.