AL contenders head to crucial series

BY foxsports • September 20, 2012

Thursday was significant for the Oakland A’s. And no, not because of the green wrestling singlets with yellow headgear — think early 1990s Oregon Ducks — distributed among the team’s rookies for their initiation.

The costumes generated riotous laughs and funny tweets, but the day’s big news happened on the field. This was Oakland’s latest checkpoint game, wedged between encounters with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander in Detroit and CC Sabathia in New York Friday night. After losing two to the Tigers, they didn’t have to win. But it was advisable.

The final score? Oakland 12, Detroit 4.

Next stop: Yankee Stadium, where a team with 14 active rookies is certain to be wide-eyed and intimidated during a pressurized September series.


“Not really,” deadpanned Seth Smith, the veteran whose 3-for-4 day helped the A’s avoid a sweep. “These guys have a pretty good head on their shoulders. This is Game 140-something. Most of them aren’t September callups. Most of them have been here the whole season or most of the season. We’ll go in there and maybe at first it’ll be, ‘Oh, wow.’ But when the game starts, it’s just another game.

“We’ve been through it all already. It’s done. We are what we are. We know what we’re doing. We’re going to try to win tomorrow’s game, whether it’s against the Yankees or anyone else.”

With a clubhouse this young, it’s entirely possible the A’s didn’t realize — before or after Thursday’s game — just how essential it was to their postseason chances. “We’re pretty loose,” said outfielder Josh Reddick, a grizzled veteran of the group at age 25. “We’re not thinking. We’re just doing.”

Still, it will be fascinating to measure the A’s response to the cacophony of a big weekend in the Bronx. The series will be the biggest showdown in the crowded American League playoff picture over the next several days, along with the three games between the Angels and White Sox in Anaheim.

Thursday’s victory restored Oakland’s 4-1/2 game lead over the Angels in the wild-card race — a needed security blanket, with their next seven games coming against the Yankees and division-leading Texas Rangers. But the Angels are entering must-win territory in the wild-card race after dropping two of three to the Rangers at home this week.

The Yankees appear to have the pitching edge in Friday’s opener — Sabathia vs. rookie (of course) Jarrod Parker — but New York may not have much of an advantage at all.

Sabathia has been beatable (1-3, 3.93 ERA) in five starts since returning from the disabled list last month, and questions persist about how healthy he actually is. Parker, 23, has a 2.14 ERA this month and beat the Yankees in July with an eight-inning, one-run effort.

“He’s got that attitude, like, ‘Here I am, it doesn’t matter how long I’ve been here,’” A’s catcher George Kottaras said. “It’s good to have a guy like that.”

The A’s have been mediocre against left-handed starters this season (26-26) and lead the majors in strikeouts. They rank near the bottom of the AL in runs scored. All of those factors favor Sabathia.

Yet, the A’s should feel confident after scoring a dozen runs Thursday, their biggest offensive outburst of the month. They also put together a series of stubborn at-bats against Verlander Wednesday night, forcing him to expend 122 pitches in six innings.

“We have been working counts, trying to get to the bullpen as quickly as we can,” Kottaras said. “(CC) does have dominating stuff, but our hitters definitely battle up there. We don’t give at-bats away. Laying off the pitches he tries to strike you out on is key.”

Other AL storylines to watch this weekend:

• As the legendary John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press pointed out recently, the White Sox (in Anaheim) will begin their games several hours after the Tigers (in Detroit) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So, get ready for pennant-race psychology. Detroit’s result could place (or relieve) pressure on Chicago to win each day. The White Sox are in control for now, with a two-game lead in the AL Central entering the weekend.

• Rookie left-hander Drew Smyly had been effective out of the bullpen for Detroit until Thursday, but he may have to move back into the rotation — for one turn, at least. Scherzer is iffy for Sunday’s start against Minnesota because of shoulder inflammation.

• The Rangers are well positioned to win their third straight AL West title. Their most pressing concern is health, with Josh Hamilton (vision problems) and Adrian Beltre (abdominal discomfort) missing time this week. One stroke of luck: They will miss Felix Hernandez when they face the Seattle Mariners this weekend.

• The Baltimore Orioles, who open a weekend set at Fenway Park Friday night, still have only one pitcher (Wei-Yin Chen) with more than 20 starts. No such team has made the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season, according to STATS LLC. Not surprisingly, their Saturday and Sunday starters are (again) listed as TBA.

• You know what they always say about the Rays: Just when you think they’re finished, they score six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and beat the Red Sox. OK, maybe they don’t always say that about the Rays. But it happened Thursday. They’re a marginal wild card contender at this point, but let’s not write them off yet. Just to be safe, you know. Young starters Matt Moore and Alex Cobb need to deliver this weekend against Toronto.