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Game #99: Superstars Jesse Hahn and Billy Butler lead A's to victory

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Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

I don't know what's gotten into this A's team.

Like three weeks ago this was an incredibly frustrating team that couldn't string together two consecutive weeks of good baseball. They'd win a series or two, and then immediately get shut out by Jered Weaver or something and lose seven in a row. The rotation stunk, the offense was okay but not great, and there simply wasn't very much fight in the team (see: Jered Weaver complete game shutout).

Everything changed like two weeks ago. Suddenly this team isn't just good, it's fun. They're winning, and they're winning in really incredible, thrilling ways. I'm tempted to blame the callup of Ryon Healy, which seemed to inject the team with a huge amount of spirit and energy. But it's not just Healy, it's everything. The rotation is suddenly really excellent (with the sad exception of Sonny Gray), the offense is killer, Jake Smolinski is probably better than Mike Trout.

The only reasonable conclusion is that Healy gave everyone steroids. For shame. I'm contacting Murray Chass as we speak.

Today's hero was definitely Jesse Hahn. Hahn, after a pretty brilliant 2015, has had a completely lost 2016. He's never found his rhythm, never been very good (starting in spring training), and ended up settling into a role as a spot starter. If you lose your rotation spot to Eric Surkamp, you've got issues, friend.

Today was by far his best start of the season. Of course, you can count his good starts in 2016 on three fingers. But it was legitimately, no caveats, a fantastic start.

I have to think the difference might be Bruce Maxwell behind the plate. Steven Vogt has a bit of a miserable defensive reputation, but Maxwell only gets raves from the coaching and the pitching staff. You could tell there was a difference – the sequencing and pitch calling was much better, and Maxwell is a fantastic pitch framer. Hahn really relies on getting low strikes. Vogt's biggest weakness as a catcher has always been framing, getting the umpire to call those borderline pitches. Maxwell is much smoother, and it made all the difference in the world.

Hahn was able to get those calls today, and was able to use those low strikes to set up his out pitches (he used the high four-seamer as a strikeout pitch today, which is new and incredibly effective) and to get hitters to drive balls into the ground. He's always had the stuff, it's just been the ability to throw strikes and control in the zone. He did both in spades.

He ended up with a season high for strikeouts (5 – his biggest weakness as a pitcher is being unable to get Ks), innings pitched (7.2, tied for his second-longest career start), and only one walk. He left with only 90 pitches thrown. He was never, ever in trouble.

Rich Hill is almost certainly going to get traded in the next week or so. That's just a thing that's going to happen. But if this is the Jesse Hahn that takes his rotation spot? It's still a downgrade, but absolutely survivable if you want to dream on the A's playoff chances.

Meanwhile, the A's offense started off hot against Blake Snell. In the first inning, four consecutive one-out hits from Smolinski, Valencia, Davis, and Butler gave the A's an early two-run lead. After that, Snell was on his game. He was ranked as one of the five best pitching prospects in baseball earlier this year, and the A's couldn't do much against him once he settled in. He allowed 7 hits and 2 walks, but the A's weren't able to put together a convincing threat after the first inning.

In the eighth inning, Hahn started to allow some hard contact. After a one-out single from Kevin Kiermaier, Hahn narrowly escaped an RBI double from Luke Maile (a real player, apparently) thanks to a miracle catch from Smolinski in CF.

Sidenote: Smolinski is a really good centerfielder. Not a ton of speed, but really excellent instincts. Man, I have a crush on him.

You're the manager. Eighth inning, your starter fresh from AAA is starting to fall apart, there's a runner on first base. You go to your best reliever, right? Melvin does the obvious thing and brings in Ryan Dull, designated fireman. And it goes about as poorly as possible. Four pitches to Logan Forsythe: called strike (fastball), wild pitch (slider), wild pitch (slider), two-run game-tying HR (belt-high 89 MPH gas).

If you wanted to, you could blame this on Maxwell – he wasn't able to effectively block Dull's slider, so he lost faith in it and hung a fastball. But really, it was like three bad pitches from Dull. Even pitchers as skilled as Dull hang stuff occasionally. He then proceeded to strike out Brad Miller on three consecutive perfect fastballs. Not that much of an off-day, really.

Three weeks ago, the A's totally would've lost this game in the most heart-rending way possible. But it's July 24th and not July 8th. Billy Butler smashed a center-field homer to take the lead back in the 8th inning. Butler has obviously been a disappointment (to put it lightly), but he can still be a skilled hitter at times. And the veteran's got some heroics left in him. This was probably the best moment of the Billy Butler era, right?

Ryan Madson pitched an uneventful ninth inning with two strikeouts, and here we are. The A's are probably too far back to make a realistic run at the playoffs, but hey, it's the second-wildcard era, the AL sucks, and anything is possible.

I'm not making any predictions. I'm just going to stare at my framed photo of Jake Smolinski for a while.