This weekend’s Orioles vs. Oakland A’s three game series is an incredibly important match up in the context of current pennant races and continues to defy preseason prognostications as both teams are performing at an unbelievable level considering the level of talent on each roster. As well as all the playoff implications, managers Buck Showalter and Bob Melvin are locked in a two-way battle for AL Manager of the Year. As an O’s fan, I’m partial towards Showalter, but you can’t ignore the job Melvin has done considering how bad most thought the A’s were going to be at season’s start. Let’s look at each squad to figure out what’s going on.
Two years ago, Showalter took over the O’s late in the season and managed them to a 34-23 record and instilled a culture of excellence and high expectations and provided a badly needed infusion of hope with the fan base. After that inspiring finish, I figured them to improve and play .500 ball in 2011 and challenge for a wild-card spot this year. At the end of the day, they’re at where I envisioned but after finishing 69-93 in 2011, I surely thought the plan was set back several years with the collapse of their starting pitching. The sudden resurgence in 2012 caught me completely by surprise. Showalter has leveraged home run power and bullpen ERA the entire year to keep these guys competitive and the recent addition of Manny Machado at third base has improved and solidified the team defense to a point where it’s no longer a liability. The way they’ve juggled arms in the starting rotation has been amazing and you’ve got to believe the O’s are for real and are in it to win it.
When spring training started, I looked at the A’s roster purge with Gio Gonzalez moving to the Nationals and Trevor Cahill’s departure to Arizona, and had this light hitting squad pegged at over 100 losses, and the worst record in the American League. Man, did I blow that one. Like most, I watched the movie Moneyball, with GM Billy Beane’s 2002 roster purge and surprising playoff success and thought with amusement that he was trying to duplicate/upstage himself, and was REALLY crazy this time. You got to give him credit because these guys are second in the American League in staff ERA without the aforementioned studs. Under Melvin, the A’s are second to last in batting average and third to last in fielding percentage, but still compete every day, which validates how important pitching is in baseball. Like Baltimore, the A’s do hit for a fair amount of power and despite their low average, are 7th in home runs.
So Oakland got the first squeeze from the lemonade stand last night with a 3-2 victory over the O’s. I still don’t see the A’s contending in the AL West with the Texas Rangers being the class of the Junior circuit and overwhelming favorites to return to the World Series. Will they go away? Who knows. Baltimore’s situation is much more complicated as they battle for the division championship with the Yankees and Rays, and try to stay in contention for the first or second wild-card. With the new playoff rules (single wild-card game) the big prize is a division championship. On paper, you still can’t favor the O’s against the Yankees bats and Rays pitching staff, but after the series with Oakland, the Birds get 13 straight games against faltering Seattle, Toronto, and Boston. Lookout folks, the O’s just might sneak in there!