A’s strong pitching offset by weak offense

The Oakland Athletics had the AL’s best pitching last season.
They also had one of the league’s worst offenses. So both areas
figured to even out this year, if only because there was almost no
other way to go.

Instead, the A’s have defied common logic again.

In what was supposed to be a season with improved offense, the
gap between pitching and hitting has never seemed wider. Oakland
heads into a three-game series at Boston beginning Friday tied for
the best ERA in the majors, an impressive feat for a banged-up
pitching staff – outdone only by its anemic run support.

”If the offense can start rolling with the pitching that we
have, we’ll definitely be on the top of the division at the end of
the year,” two-time All-Star closer Andrew Bailey said.

Maybe true.

If only it were that easy.

The strikeouts and hitless innings pile up about as quickly in
Oakland for the pitchers as the hitters, an unbalanced production
almost unrivaled in the majors. In its own way, each has been
equally surprising this season.

Three of the five starters in the rotation are injured. Lefty
Dallas Braden won’t be back at all this year after surgery to
repair a torn capsule in his shoulder, Bailey just returned from a
strained right forearm and Rich Harden hasn’t gotten off the
disabled list with a strained muscle under his right shoulder.

All the injuries have still done little to slow A’s
pitchers.

Oakland is tied with Atlanta with a majors-best 3.01 ERA despite
playing in the hitter-heavy American League. The bullpen is finally
at full strength and fill-in starters Josh Outman and Guillermo
Moscoso are undefeated in four combined starts.

”We feel like we’ve weathered the storm a little bit as far as
the injuries,” reliever Brad Ziegler said. ”But we know there are
more storms coming, hopefully not with injuries, but other
challenges to overcome.”

Easily the biggest hurdle to clear is the lack of offense.

Oakland ranks 25th in batting average, 26th in runs scored and
29th in home runs this season, underwhelming even the typically
tepid crowds at the Coliseum. The pitching-to-hitting disparity
wasn’t supposed to happen this year, at least not to this
extreme.

The A’s signed sluggers Hideki Matsui, Josh Willingham and David
DeJesus in the offseason to give the middle of the lineup some pop.
But it has been a quiet offensive output from new and old faces
alike.

”With the pitching that we have, we’re a tough team to beat
when the offense is there,” manager Bob Geren said.

But the offense just hasn’t been there.

Matsui (.222) and DeJesus (.254) have been perhaps the most
disappointing. Willingham (.240) has always hit for power not
average, and his 10 home runs might be the lone bright spot among
the newcomers.

Daric Barton (.206) is the only regular starting first baseman
in the majors without a home run, Kurt Suzuki (.242) has been
inconsistent and Mark Ellis (.214) is off to an usually slow
start.

With the pitchers producing with baseball’s best, the lack of
offense has weighed heavily on hitters.

”We haven’t helped them as much as we should have so far this
year, but hopefully we can start coming around and putting some
consistent games together,” Willingham said.

Hitting struggles are not exactly a new concept in Oakland.

General manager Billy Beane has built the A’s on pitching for
years, although hitting was never so scarce in the most recent
playoff runs. Oakland hasn’t played into October since being swept
by Detroit in the 2006 AL championship series, and even those teams
found a way to manufacture runs when it counted.

The A’s showed in a three-game sweep of Baltimore last weekend
how dangerous they can be when the offense erupts, scoring 16 runs
in a lopsided series. Oakland followed that up by showing how
quickly its bats can go cold, getting swept by the Yankees after
being outscored 19-5 in the three-game series.

”We didn’t score runs,” Oakland’s Conor Jackson said after the
series finale. ”It’s a recipe for losses.”