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August 24, 2005

Prospectus Game of the Week

Kansas City Royals @ Oakland A's, 8/21/05

by Jonah Keri

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Sunday's matchup of the Kansas City Royals and Oakland A's marked one of the biggest mismatches of red-hot vs. ice-cold teams so far this season. After all, the Royals had just taken care of business, dispatching the A's with a 2-1 win Saturday night.

OK, the Royals weren't so hot before Saturday's game, losing 19 straight games. But after getting within sniffing distance of the AL record for consecutive losses, they blew it. As BP's resident Royals fanatic Rany Jazayerli lamented, they can't even lose right.

Meanwhile the A's entered Sunday's game riding the best record in baseball since the All-Star break, and a hot streak that propelled them from doormat status to the front of the AL Wild Card race and a dogfight with the front-running Angels in the AL West. With the Indians, Yankees and Twins breathing down their necks, the A's didn't want to suffer the indignity of a series loss to the Royals. In a bizarre way, Sunday's game had the makings of something intriguing...


CF Chip Ambres
2B Denny Hocking
DH Mike Sweeney
1B Matt Stairs
RF Emil Brown
LF Terrence Long
3B Mark Teahen
SS Angel Berroa
C John Buck

...like a lineup featuring Denny Hocking, for one. With second-base prospect Ruben Gotay not panning out in his rookie season, the Royals have been forced to deploy Hocking and overmatched B-level prospect Donnie Murphy at the deuce. An injury to center fielder David DeJesus (one of the team's only legit hitters), the ongoing struggles of young talent like Mark Teahen and John Buck and the Royals' continued, inexplicable usage of Terrence Long portended a big day ahead for A's rookie starter Joe Blanton.

Blanton's numbers this year suggest a put-it-in-play approach--51 BB, 17 HR and just 75 Ks--and that's just what the Royals do in the 1st. Chip Ambres flies out to center, then Hocking rips a hard single to left, a good play by Jay Payton preventing him from advancing further. A popout by Mike Sweeney and a shot by Matt Stairs to center flagged down by Mark Kotsay and the inning's over. Eight pitches, three outs.


C Jason Kendall
CF Mark Kotsay
SS Bobby Crosby
3B Eric Chavez
1B Dan Johnson
LF Jay Payton
RF Nick Swisher
DH Adam Melhuse
2B Marco Scutaro

When a team stages a turnaround as dramatic as the A's have, there's a strong urge to assign some cosmic reason to the rebound. Sadly for romantics, the A's bounceback has been due to little more than regression to the mean. Several A's, notably Eric Chavez and Jason Kendall, got off to obscenely cold starts that were nowhere near their established level of performance. Though just a rookie, Nick Swisher terrible first few weeks this season also belied his solid performance throughout the minor leagues, suggesting he could do more if left in the lineup to snap out of it. Credit Billy Beane, Ken Macha and the A's organization as a whole for sticking with their front-line players. Then throw in lights-out performances by rookies Dan Johnson and Huston Street and you've got a team that deserves to be where it is. (Johnson's emergence after a huge minor league career and the general availability of cheap, effective hitters at the left side of the defensive spectrum make you wonder why the A's felt the need to give Scott Hatteberg a two-year deal two years ago.)

Chavez's turnaround has been especially dramatic. At the end of May the A's star's OPS stood at 593--less than eight weeks later it's at 809. Chavez doubles leading off the second, then does it again with two outs in the fourth, both times driving the ball deep to the opposite field in left. Those impressive hitting displays go for naught as the A's fail to score him both times. Squandered opportunities become the theme of the game for the A's through five innings:

  • 2nd: Chavez leadoff double, A's fail to score

  • 4th: Chavez two-out double, A's fail to score

  • 5th: Swisher one-out double, A's fail to score

Hot streak or not, Jay Payton batting sixth against right-handed pitching isn't the kind of thing you'd expect from a pennant contender, but Bobby Kielty's cold bat has left the A's scrambling. Meanwhile Erubiel Durazo's injury has the club playing their backup catcher at DH. Throw in Marco Scutaro crashing back to earth, and the A's, more than perhaps any other potential playoff team, desperately need to add a bat for the season's last few weeks. The restrictions of the waiver process and the A's limited payroll present a tough challenge, though: The perfect pickup for the A's would be someone like Stairs--still a good hitter, very good DH vs. righties, and cheap. Unfortunately those traits also make him attractive to a slew of other teams, making it unlikely he'd go unclaimed before the A's got to him, if he got thrown out on the wire. When scuffling starter Runelvys Hernandez sets the A's down through 2, then Shawn Camp and his 7.25 ERA breeze through three more frames scoreless after Hernandez leaves with an injury, it looks like this game may be a microcosm of the A's Achilles heel.

Fortunately for A's boosters, Oakland has Blanton, the 11th-best starter in the AL this season as rated by BP's Support-Neutral pitching stats--one of three A's starters in the top 11, and one of four in the top 25. Using an effective moving fastball and an array of well-located off-speed pitches, Blanton holds the Royals to five singles, two walks and no runs through six.

The A's finally break through in the bottom of the sixth. Kendall leads off with a double to right. Apparently frustrated with the A's inability to drive in runners in scoring position, manager Ken Macha opts to have Kotsay throw away an out by bunting--only Camp throws the ball wide of first, and everyone's safe. A Bobby Crosby RBI single, Johnson sacrifice fly and Payton fielder's choice later, the A's have grabbed a 3-0 lead. Given how hard it is to imagine the Royals' Sunday lineup scoring three runs in a week, let alone a game, the lead looks secure.

It stays that way through the seventh, as Blanton strikes out Teahen, Berroa and Buck in order. But after throwing just 99 pitches and looking his strongest in the seventh, the A's pull Blanton out of the game. Though Jay Witasick's 1.54 ERA may have provided Macha with some solace, 11+ innings doesn't tell you enough to anoint a pitcher a lights-out set-up man, or at least one worthy of yanking a pitcher on cruise control. Plus this is Jay Witasick we're talking about--an effective enough pitcher, but not one you associate with moments of glory.

Sure enough, the game falls apart for the A's in eighth, though Witasick deserves only part of the blame. A four-pitch walk to Ambres exposes Witasick's control bugaboo, one which has plagued him on and off throughout his career. A sharp Hocking grounder to Chavez at third follows, looking like a double play, or at least a force--only Chavez's wild throw leaves men on first and second with none out instead. A Witasick hit-by-pitch of Mike Sweeney loads the bases, ending Witasick's outing without an out on his ledger.

The A's bring in Joe Kennedy, who's also done a good job in relief for Oakland, freed of Coors Field hell. When Kennedy induces a flyball to center by Stairs, it looks like the A's will give up a sac fly while recording a key out, giving them a chance to get out of the jam giving up only one run. Instead Kotsay loses the ball in the sun, resulting in a two-run ground-rule double. An Emil Brown groundout and Long sacrifice fly later, the Royals have taken an improbable 4-3 lead.

But the Royals give it right back in the bottom of the 8th, exposing the organization's biggest weakness in the process. For all the promise that such pitchers as Hernandez and Jeremy Affeldt once held, they, along with a host of other Royal pitching prospects of recent vintage, have either struggled or flamed out. TNSTAAPP is just a cop-out--that the Royals have resorted to using Affeldt as a middleman out of the pen with periodic set-up duties underscores the team's head-scratching development methods when it comes to their young pitchers. When Affeldt puts two on in the eighth, then watches Mike MacDougal cough up a game-tying single to Payton in his stead, it's hard not to think of Zack Greinke and his 6.04 ERA; is this just a lost season at the start of a great career, or the start of the latest failure for a Royals pitching phenom du jour?

The game goes into lockdown mode from there, in a scenario that would seem to favor the A's. Armed with standout relievers such as Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero, Oakland figures to have a huge edge, especially when the Royals counter with Jimmy Gobble--another failed Royals pitching prospect--and his painfully ugly 7.76 ERA. But while Street and Duchscherer get the A's to the 12th still tied, so too does MacDougal, and improbably, Gobble.

Instead it's Calero who lets his team down. Hocking's infield hit to start the inning likely made Beane pop a few blood vessels after the game, wondering how Denny Hocking could have started the rally that cost his team a series against the Royals. After a Sweeney single and a sacrifice bunt by Joe McEwing, Calero works the count to 2-2 against Emil Brown. With a 30-year-old journeyman at his mercy, and Calero holding righties well below a .200 batting average on the year, everyone in the park has to be thinking slider, strike three. Calero throws his slider on cue. Only instead of befuddling Brown, it floats in like a lollipop. Brown rips the chest-high pitch to right, scoring the go-ahead run. When Gobble gets Kendall, Kotsay and Crosby in order in the 12th to cap his third inning of relief, the Royals lock up their first series win since just before the streak started, when they took two of three from the White Sox July 25-27.

With Tuesday's games in the books, the A's found themselves trailing the Yankees and sizzling Indians by a game each, while sitting just a game and a half ahead of Minnesota in the Wild Card chase. With the Yankees flush with sluggers, the Twins sporting one of the best starting rotations in baseball and the Indians arguably trotting out the most balanced roster in the game, the A's will face an uphill climb to complete their huge turnaround and give themselves another shot at getting to the World Series. For the Royals, it must have been nice just to have the post-game spread not taste bitter for a change.

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

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