If the “Moneyball” A’s were, in the words of author Michael Lewis, baseball’s answer to the island of misfit toys, what the heck is this bunch? An archipelago of All-American rejects, plus one Cuban defector?
Let’s not get too caught up in the “Moneyball II” narrative; these A’s wish they had the young Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez. Still, this version of Oakland shares the same foundation as the previous one — young starting pitching — and features a new and equally colorful collection of misfit toys.
The entire brigade was on display Monday night as the $55 million Athletics won the opener of a critical four-game series against the $154 million Los Angeles Angels. The 3-1 victory moved Oakland within three games of the Texas Rangers in the AL West and increased its cushion in the wild-card race to three games over the Tampa Bay Rays.
Right-hander Jarrod Parker, one of four rookies in the Athletics’ current rotation, overcame three errors by his defense to outpitch his veteran counterpart, righty Dan Haren. First baseman Brandon Moss, a minor-league free agent, hit the go-ahead home run. Second baseman Cliff Pennington, who began the season at shortstop, added another homer and turned a pivotal double play.
The Angels had won 15 of their previous 18 games — including a three-game sweep last week in Oakland — but the Athletics’ looseness and aggressiveness did not exactly come as a surprise.
“Let me tell you the level of concern about this series,” designated hitter Jonny Gomes said before the game. “Zero.”
Gomes, the Athletics’ veteran leader, mock-glared at me as I approached him in the clubhouse, asking, “Where ya been?” He then reminded me that he had predicted the Athletics would be good in spring training. As I recall, he did actually say that. Even scarier, he actually believed it.
Anyway, Gomes immediately launched into a 10-minute soliloquy in praise of all things A’s. The first time I laughed is when he talked about the revolving door in the clubhouse — players in, players out, a Billy Beane concoction like none other.
“Over here, it’s literally a meet-and-greet every day,” Gomes said.
The Athletics acquired their starting shortstop, Stephen Drew, on Aug. 20. Their most experienced starting pitcher, left-hander Brett Anderson, returned from Tommy John surgery to make his 2012 debut on Aug. 21 — and Anderson, 24, actually is younger than one of the Athletics’ rookie starters, lefty Tommy Milone.
If Beane’s peers do not vote him Executive of the Year, it will only be because they are still jealous that Brad Pitt played him in the movie. Beane, lest anyone forget, took heat for trading starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey last offseason. But privately, he vowed even then that he had improved his team.
Beane’s manager, Bob Melvin, likewise is a strong candidate for AL Manager of the Year, as selected by voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Baltimore’s Buck Showalter and the Chicago White Sox’s Robin Ventura also are worthy, but Melvin’s team has overcome the greatest odds.
The Athletics lost their projected third baseman, Scott Sizemore, to a season-ending knee injury in spring training. They lost another third baseman, Brandon Inge, to a season-ending shoulder injury after he produced 52 RBI in 74 games. They traded their longtime catcher, Kurt Suzuki, on Aug. 3, leaving rookie Derek Norris as the primary receiver for a young staff.
And that’s not the least of it.
The Athletics’ most experienced starting pitcher, right-hander Bartolo Colon, received a 50-game drug suspension on Aug. 22. Their next most experienced starter, righty Brandon McCarthy, suffered serious injuries when he was struck in the head by a line drive last week.
The A’s just press on, reinventing themselves each step of the way.
“I had no idea who Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin were — they weren’t even in big-league camp,” Gomes said, referring to two of the A’s starting pitchers. “(Reliever) Travis Blackley. Everywhere we go he’s talking to someone because he played with that team. He’s been with seven teams.”
The pitchers, though, are a gifted bunch, a group that could produce the next Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. The hitters, except for the Cuban rookie, left fielder Yoenis Cespedes, are less impressive overall. Which, of course, makes the Athletics’ offensive turnaround nothing short of stunning.
Since the All-Star break, the Athletics have hit 81 homers, best in the majors, and averaged 5.15 runs, second in the AL to the Angels. Prior to the break, they were ninth in the AL in homers and last in batting average, on-base percentage and runs per game.
Moss, promoted from Triple A on June 6, is a symbol of the offensive surge. After failing to stick with Boston, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, he has become part of a dynamic platoon at first base with Chris Carter, a platoon that has produced 31 homers in 376 at-bats.
“I was pretty much resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen,” Moss, 28, said of his return to the majors. “I was pretty much staying down there trying to do well enough to have the opportunity to go to Japan. You can only chase a dream so long and blow so many opportunities at it.”
Well, the A’s gave him one more chance, and this time Moss seized it. At one point in July, Melvin told Moss that he was going to play Carter more, go with the hot hand. Moss responded, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be ready any time you need me.” And now Moss, with five homers in his last 11 games, is the hot hand again.
Don’t try to explain any of this; the team’s success is so improbable, it seems likely to end at any moment. Yet, the Athletics now have won 10 straight games on the road. They’re 20 games over .500 for the first time since the end of the 2006 season. And they’re 58-30 since June 2 — a .659 winning percentage that is the best in the majors.
Their remaining schedule is daunting — a home series against Baltimore, a 10-game trip to Detroit, New York and Texas, a six-game homestand against Seattle and Texas. But as Melvin said, “We’re just trying to keep it real current, keep out as many distractions as we can.”
“From the outside looking in, it doesn’t make sense,” Gomes acknowledged. “We’ll win a game 5-2, punch out 16 times, hit a three-run and two-run homer. It’s like, ‘OK, they have no idea what the heck they’re doing.’ But there’s a method to the madness.”