I am about as optimistic as fans come. I like to think that I'm simply realistic, but the truth is that I tend to see the brighter side of the coin when it comes to the Oakland A's. Part of that has to do with my complete faith in Billy Beane, and part of it is just my overall hopeful nature. But one way or the other, I haven't given up on this 2015 season, and there's nothing you can say to change my mind.
The A's entered Monday with the worst record in baseball at 16-30, and by day's end they'd moved up to 29th at 17-30. Progress! See ya in the funny pages, MLB-worst Milwaukee Brewers. That's still a heck of a hole to dig out of -- 12½ games in the division, to be exact -- but sports in the 21st century have been full of wild swings, unexpected collapses, and stunning comebacks. The 2014 A's spent four months as the best team in baseball, and then they spent two months looking like one of the worst and nearly missed the playoffs; sure, all those wins counted, just as all of these early losses do, but the point is that greatness turned into mush in the blink of an eye, just as we've seen mush turn into greatness with past A's teams.
The A's weren't the only team to go hot and cold last year. The 2014 Giants went through a 20-36 stretch in June and July. The 2014 Royals were below .500 on June 8, and they were still only three games over .500 on August 2. Then they met in the World Series. Every team will lose far more than 30 games this year, so nothing is truly lost yet. If the A's can spend four months as a juggernaut and then fall apart in an instant, then why can't they spend seven weeks looking lost and then suddenly come together and find themselves? There's plenty of precedent for A's teams doing just that, and the pieces are absolutely there for this team to be a contender. All they have to do is get a bit hotter than we expected they'd need to. Is it likely? No, probably not. Is it impossible? Absolutely not, and that's good enough for me. I've seen this movie before, and all I can hope is that the director doesn't change the plot too much in this particular reboot.
The A's have won three games in a row for the first time this year, and they've earned every one of those wins. Each victory came against a contending team. Two of them featured sparkling performances from the young starting pitchers they acquired last winter. All three included a couple of timely hits from the lineup, the types we haven't seen a lot of lately. And now, with the momentum building, Oakland is getting back Ben Zobrist and Sean Doolittle, two of the key players on the whole roster. Zobrist is the middle infield savior we finally got and then cruelly lost, a No. 3 hitter replacing a No. 9 hitter but with no decline in defensive prowess. Doolittle is (hopefully still) the lockdown reliever we need in the back of the bullpen, the desperately needed cavalry to rescue the tattered troops. There is hope.
It all starts with that starting pitching, though. Sonny Gray is a Cy Young frontrunner, and his ankle is reportedly fine after getting hit by a comebacker. Scott Kazmir is his normal, quality self. Jesse Chavez is showing that his first-half performance last year was not a fluke. And Hahn and Graveman, two guys who struggled out of the gate, both showed why Beane went after them over the offseason. Graveman finally had control of his pitches -- he threw strikes and got the groundballs he craves. Hahn finally navigated around the fielding errors behind him to get quick out after quick out -- he needed only 112 pitches to complete his four-hit shutout. Sure, one or both of those performances could turn out to be lightning in a bottle, and Graveman and/or Hahn could turn back into inconsistent pumpkins. But I expected both of them to be good and now my confirmation bias has been activated. You don't have to squint hard to see how this rotation could go on a serious winning streak. And hey, Sean Nolin is off to a good start in Triple-A after recovering from non-arm surgery.
And how about the offense? Stephen Vogt and Josh Reddick are still hitting like serious middle-of-the-order guys, Billy Burns might be emerging as a leadoff sparkplug, Mark Canha is producing again after recovering from the flu, and now Zobrist is back in the mix. Even Max Muncy has contributed a thing or two in emergency duty. At this point there should be eight hitters in the order every day who are decent-to-excellent, with only one of Eric Sogard or Sam Fuld filling space at the bottom. And when Ike Davis comes back down the road, there could be nine good bats every day. There is power, there is speed, there is on-base ability, there are guys who make lots of contact ... this is a good lineup when most everybody who's supposed to be in it is playing.
Sure, the bullpen is probably still a problem. Getting Doo back should help, unless he's not his old self. Even if he is, he and Tyler Clippard can only lock down the eighth and ninth on their own; someone else will still need to get Oakland through the dreaded seventh inning. Pish posh, I say; bullpens burn down and rise up so quickly that it's hard for me to take them seriously as long-term concerns, as long as there is some level of talent there. Evan Scribner might be a gem after all with his new arsenal, I haven't given up on Dan Otero, and we haven't even seen Pat Venditte yet -- yeah, in my green-and-gold world there is no question that he comes up at some point and makes a positive difference. There have to be seven guys in this organization who won't ruin every game.
Yep, the defense still sucks. The infield made three errors today ... and yet, Hahn still threw a shutout. Two of the errors were eliminated on double plays, and the other took one extra pitch to overcome. The sloppiness is absolutely a problem, but it's also possible for the miscues you make to not cost you the game every single day like we've seen at times this year. Young players can improve in this regard, too. Marcus Semien is 24 years old and needs a lot of work at shortstop, but hey, the A's just brought back the guy who helped a young all-bat no-glove Eric Chavez win six Gold Gloves at third. Hiring the beloved Ron Washington feels like a watershed moment when you're out looking for one, and I'm more than willing to cling to it as a sign of good things to come.
The A's are 17-30, and in order to win 88 games they need to go 71-44 the rest of the way. That's a .617 win percentage, or a 100-win pace! But so what, I say. If a good-looking roster can play .362 ball for a couple months, then why can't it play over its head too for a while too? No team is perfectly consistent through the regular season; wins and losses come in spurts, and sometimes the weirdest spurt comes at the beginning just to throw everyone off. Their next nine games are against a Tigers team missing Victor Martinez and a Yankees team missing Jacoby Ellsbury, followed three more against a Boston team that literally doesn't have a starting rotation. Literally. Whoever throws the ceremonial first pitch, they just have that person stick around for the first five innings.
What if Oakland gets hot and goes 10-2 in these next dozen games, and ends up 27-32? Will the season still be over then, or will it just be beginning? Sure, that's a ridiculously bold prayer, but would it really be any crazier than a talented roster going 2-13 in one-run games? These kinds of unexpected, unexplainable things happen all the time in baseball and in every other sport. And the best part is, going for it doesn't require the A's to hide away any developing youngsters or make any seriously short-sighted decisions; the guys you see are the guys we've got and they will be set free for better or for worse.
You're free to throw up your hands and proclaim the season over, and you'll probably turn out right. Most teams that start 17-30 probably don't even get back to .500, much less back into contention. It's a long-shot, but it's a long-shot I choose to believe in. I don't even feel like I'm asking for a miracle here, just for a group of quality players to perform like they're used to, and for a handful of youngsters to develop before our eyes like so many Beane-picked rookies have done in the past. I'm asking them to get a little bit extra hot at some point to make up for going extra cold at the start. I'm not expecting to get it, but I know it's not gone yet, and that if I just cheer a bit extra hard then maybe I can help make it happen.
Give up in May if you want. The choice is yours, and absolutely no one will fault you for it. I'm fully aware that I'm the crazy one here, and that anyone opposing me is using nothing but common logic. But sports aren't logical; they never have been, and they never will be. I'm choosing to keep the fAith. No matter what you choose, we'll have a great time watching together.