Rookie pitchers a surprise for A's

BY foxsports • September 19, 2012

How young are the Oakland A’s?

“Tomorrow we have dress-up day,” veteran Jonny Gomes told me Wednesday, in reference to the longstanding baseball tradition of rookie costume-wearing. “We have 18 people. Eighteen. The Washington Nationals? Young team? They had six.”

So there you have it. When examining the all-important statistic of sequined outfits per team, the A’s are three times as inexperienced as the Nationals.

Some more perspective: In their effort to topple the twice-defending American League champion Texas Rangers in the West division, the A’s are relying on two rookie starting pitchers who were selling athletic shoes around this time last year.

Dan Straily was an ace for Dick’s Sporting Goods in Eugene, Ore., while A.J. Griffin toiled for Nike Running at the Stanford Shopping Center on campus in Palo Alto. These guys had real jobs. Now they’re a combined 8-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 17 big-league starts.

“I worked at Dick’s the last couple years,” Straily said. “I applied at Nike, where A.J. worked — not the same one. I got declined. So I just went back to Dick’s.”

Any chance he’ll return after this season?

“No,” he said, wryly. “I actually got a text from one of my old managers. He asked me if I was coming back. I just replied, ‘Hey, probably not. I’m going to be focused on other things.’ ”

Like the playoffs.

Well, maybe. Oakland’s mettle is being tested as never before, with an 0-2 start to their crucial swing through Detroit, New York and Texas.

“I’ve already done this with the 2008 Rays,” Gomes said. “I’ve been there. I’ve lived this whole thing. It’s funny. We had like a four-game lead with three left and people were saying something was going to happen, like a (freaking) spaceship was going to come down and there was no way we were going to win.”

Similar skepticism is starting to build around the A’s — minus the freaking spaceships, at least according to my sources. The A’s have lost three straight games, the last two by a combined 18-4 count in Detroit. They are a longshot to leapfrog Texas for the division title, even with seven head-to-head matchups over the final 10 games. A wild-card spot is more realistic; they are 3-1/2 games clear of the Los Angeles Angels in that race.

The pivotal road trip became even more arduous with the news that starter Brett Anderson suffered a strained right oblique during Wednesday’s start. It appears doubtful that he will be ready to take his next turn in the rotation; Straily is likely to take Anderson’s spot, with left-hander Travis Blackley subbing for Straily at Yankee Stadium Saturday afternoon.

For those of you scoring at home, the A’s rotation now consists of Tommy Milone (rookie), Jarrod Parker (rookie), Blackley (journeyman Aussie) and the ex-shoehorn wielders.

Blackley, 29, is enjoying one of the team’s many storybook seasons. He’s 5-3 with a 3.36 ERA in 93 2/3 innings, after not pitching in the majors since 2007. His last start was Aug. 29 against the hapless Indians before a friends-and-family crowd of 14,412 in Cleveland. The next one? Late September, pennant race, Yankee Stadium, with all the attendant pinstripes and ghosts.

“Definitely going to be a big series, after the first two games of this one,” Blackley said. “We’re going to have to dig in.”

Blackley spent last season with the KIA Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. I asked Blackley what had been the biggest start of his career, prior to Saturday’s assignment. He thought for a moment.

“The World Baseball Classic was pretty big for me, against Cuba,” he said of the 2009 encounter with future teammate Yoenis Cespedes. “If you look into it like that, yeah, you’re going to psych yourself out. I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about trying to keep the team in the game as long as possible.

“Obviously, as a kid, that was who you pictured yourself pitching against — the Yankees in Yankee Stadium. It’s going to be one of those dreams coming true.”

We can be skeptical about the A’s chances to win the World Series, but they are the frontrunner for this year’s Easiest Team to Like Award. Manager Bob Melvin has done masterful work with 11 rookie pitchers and a roster that does not include a single .300 hitter.

For Wednesday’s encounter with reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander, four Oakland batters entered with averages of .216 or below. That this team began the day with the AL’s second-best winning percentage is one of the great North American sports miracles of 2012.

Yes, the A’s have had superb pitching. But now Anderson is out. Bartolo Colon is serving a steroid suspension. Brandon McCarthy survived the year’s most frightening baseball moment — a Sept. 5 line shot to the head — and is still recuperating after brain surgery.

“Our whole team is a platoon — right field, first base, second base, third base, catcher, shortstop, DH with myself and Seth (Smith),” Gomes said. “Some of the high-market teams, the lineup is carbon-copied. Not here. How do you legitimately have six platoons, which is 12 guys, and we’re all happy? How in the hell does that happen?”

Good question. Like a lot of things about the 2012 Oakland A’s, it is more easily appreciated than explained. Sort of like the image of Dan Straily, standing amid the Swooshes in Eugene, stealing a few glances at television sets showing the 2011 postseason.

“My career goal was not to sell shoes at Dick’s Sporting Goods,” Straily said the other day. “It was to play major league baseball.”

With 14 games left, he and his teammates need to maintain their Coliseum credo: dream more, think less and (just in case) keep an eye out for the freaking spaceships.