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October 4, 2012

What You Need to Know

Thursday, October 4

by Daniel Rathman

The Wednesday Takeaway
“We were like a train, we got on a track and just kept it going,” said Jonny Gomes after the Athletics completed their sweep of the Rangers with a 12-5 victory yesterday afternoon. “No east and west, we knew we were just going north.” Well, now the A’s are heading east, to Detroit, as the American League West champions and the junior circuit’s number-two seed.

As recently as Sept. 25, with nine games remaining in the season, Oakland’s chances of winning the division title were minuscule, 1-in-40 to be exact. The Rangers had extended their lead to five games with a 5-4 victory in game one of a four-game set in Arlington, which seemed to be the dagger that would relegate the A’s to fighting for the wild card. Instead, Oakland won four of its next five meetings with Texas, and swept Seattle in between, setting up a battle for all the marbles on Wednesday.

The home team grabbed a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning, but the visitors stormed back in the top of the third, briefly silencing the sellout Coliseum crowd with a five-spot that chased Oakland starter A.J. Griffin. But that was all the damage the Rangers would do, and the A’s offense soon had its say. Oakland began the last of the fourth by going walk-double-single-single, sending Ryan Dempster to the showers in favor of Derek Holland with the score at 5-3. The lefty got two quick outs, but then the floodgates opened, as Coco Crisp plated a pair of runs with a double. Two batters later, Josh Hamilton’s inexplicable error gave the A’s a 7-5 lead they would not relinquish. 

In yesterday’s What You Need to Know, I wrote that the most formidable challenge for manager Bob Melvin would be navigating his bullpen, as Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Grant Balfour had all been used heavily during the previous few days. Evan Scribner proved that point moot. The 27-year-old righty relieved Griffin with two on and two out in the third, stranded both runners on a ground out by Ian Kinsler, and proceeded to work a total of three scoreless innings, before giving way to Jerry Blevins and the aforementioned big three. Oakland’s insurance runs—one in the fifth and four in the eighth—turned the game into a laugher, but Scribner’s middle-inning clampdown should not be forgotten.

Scribner was just the most recent unsung hero for Oakland in a season chock full of them. The A’s used a rookie starting pitcher in 101 (62.3 percent) of their games this year and those rookies, together with their bullpen colleagues, set a major-league record with 54 combined wins. On the heels of a busy offseason, general manager Billy Beane added Travis Blackley, Brandon Inge, George Kottaras, and Stephen Drew midyear, plugging holes in his roster and squeezing every last ounce of value from a $49 million payroll.

All those little tweaks ultimately produced this remarkable run, and each of them proved critical as the division was decided by the thinnest of margins. The Rangers enjoyed sole possession of first place from the fourth game through the 161st. On Tuesday, the A’s drew even. And on Wednesday, they joined the 1951 New York Giants and the 2006 Minnesota Twins as the only teams in major-league history to capture first place for the first time on the very last day of the regular season.

Sixty-two games into the 2012 campaign, the A’s were 27-35, just half a game ahead of the last-place Mariners, and already nine shy of the first-place Rangers. In other words, they were where just about everyone expected them to be.  What no one expected was for Oakland to win 67 of its remaining 100—a 109-win pace if projected over a full season—leave Anaheim in its dust, surge past Texas, and celebrate twice in a three-day span at the beginning of October.

What to Watch for on Thursday
For the first time since July 11, there are no major-league games on the docket. But there is plenty of action off the field, as postseason-bound teams finalize their rosters in preparation for the wild-card playoff games and the Division Series.

  • Orioles manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette will make the first big decision of the postseason: choosing a starter for their one-game showdown with the Rangers in Arlington. While Texas has the benefit of sending its ace, Yu Darvish, to the mound, Baltimore has two options, both of which carry a significant drawback.

    Joe Saunders is in line for the assignment if Showalter sticks to his end-of-season rotation, but pitching in Rangers Ballpark is the southpaw’s idea of hell on earth. He has suffered a loss in each of his six career outings in Arlington, serving up a whopping 13 home runs in 31 2/3 innings, en route to a 9.38 ERA. Rookie Steve Johnson, who was profiled in the Effectively Wild podcast on Sept. 25, is the alternative, and his strikeout rate (46 in 38 1/3 regular-season innings) could serve him well in the hitter-friendly yard. But Johnson is coming off a minor knee injury, and while he seemed fine during a throwing session earlier this week, Showalter may be hesitant to gamble if the 25-year-old is not yet back to 100 percent.
  • The Rangers will be faced with a health question mark of their own should they advance to the Division Series and beyond—namely, the health of set-up man Mike Adams, who has been out since Sept. 27 with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Adams is a long shot to be on the ALDS roster, since he’ll likely need at least another week to recover, but if and when the 34-year-old does return, Ron Washington could shuffle his relievers’ roles.

    In particular, Alexi Ogando, who has become one of the key bridges to closer Joe Nathan, could take on a multi-inning role, enabling Washington to put his starters on a short leash. The 28-year-old Ogando moved to the bullpen full-time this season after making 29 starts in 2011, and then serving as a middle reliever in last year’s playoffs. He has held opposing right-handed hitters to a 494 OPS over the course of his young career, a skill that could make him an effective complement to southpaws like Matt Harrison and Derek Holland, should either struggle in the early innings of a post-season start.
  • More injury decisions? Sure, why not? The A’s did just fine with an all-rookie rotation over the last two weeks of the regular season, but they will welcome Brett Anderson back with open arms if he is fully recovered from an oblique injury that knocked him out of his start at Comerica Park on Sept. 19. Anderson was considered a candidate to start a hypothetical one-game playoff against the Orioles, but now that the A’s have won the division, he may instead get the ball in Game One or Two in Detroit. That would enable Melvin to save Tommy Milone until the series returns to the Coliseum, where the soft-tossing lefty logged a 2.74 ERA this season, far superior to his 4.83 mark on the road.
  • The Yankees, who became the number-one seed in the aftermath of the Rangers’ skid, may now alter their rotation plans as they prepare to take on Baltimore or Texas. The Sunday-Monday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday format of the 1-vs.-4 American League Division Series necessitates at least three starting pitchers—four if only CC Sabathia can be trusted on short rest, and five if New York wants to keep all of its starters on a normal schedule.

    Among other considerations, that setup leaves rookie David Phelps’ role up in the air. If Joe Girardi opts to use three or four starters, Phelps—who made 33 appearances during the regular season, 11 of them as a starter—would be available in an Ogando-like role, and he, too, has been very effective against right-handed hitters. The 25-year-old Phelps amassed a 2.76 ERA in his 22 relief outings, recording a 42-to-15 K:BB in 42 1/3 innings of work.
  • While most teams are sorting out their pitching arrangements, the Giants are busy settling their catching situation. Buster Posey will be in the squat for Games One and Two at AT&T Park, where Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, respectively, are set to toe the rubber. But when the series moves to Great American Ball Park, where Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito may each get a turn, Bruce Bochy will be forced to decide whether to continue pairing them with backup Hector Sanchez, or to keep Posey behind the dish. The latter scenario would enable Bochy to keep Brandon Belt at first base, where he is a defensive asset, instead of shifting him to left field. For now, signs point to Sanchez catching Lincecum, but that decision may change as the series unfolds.

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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