The Wednesday Takeaway
With less than 35 games left to play, the Athletics remain atop the American League wild-card standings. Bob Melvin’s team has won five in a row and eight of its last 10, regaining its edge over the Orioles and Rays, and forcing the Angels and Tigers to play a perpetual game of catch-up.
Tough times lie ahead for Oakland. Its September schedule is packed with showdowns against junior circuit contenders, including a grueling, 10-game trip to Detroit, New York, and Texas that kicks off a season-ending stretch of 16 games in as many days. But what the A’s are doing now is what the Angels—who went 3-7 on a homestand against the Mariners, Indians, and Rays—and the Tigers have struggled to do consistently this season: They are piling up wins over lesser opponents.
It’s a cliché, and a superficial one at that, but the way to beat the teams you should beat is to avoid beating yourself. At their best, the Angels are better than the Mariners, they are probably better than the Rays, and they are certainly better than the Indians, who are 5-22 this month. But from Dan Haren’s dud against Seattle on Aug. 11, to Jered Weaver’s shellacking at the hands of Tampa Bay six days later, their pitchers let them down. Where the Angels have Weaver, Zack Greinke, and C.J. Wilson, the A’s have Brandon McCarthy, Tommy Milone, and Jarrod Parker. Yet it’s the Oakland trio that has spearheaded a 25-game streak of starters issuing no more than two walks. The A’s are 16-9 since that run began on Aug. 2; the Angels are 11-14.
Oakland’s recipe is no revelation—it requires no exploitation of market inefficiencies. From Little League on up, coaches preach throwing strikes and trusting your fielders, and in addition to routinely doing the former, the A’s rank fifth in the league in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (PADE). Blessed with a ballpark that, concrete walls be damned, requires only a crew of able glove men to turn Tom Milone into Tom Seaver, the A’s have taken full advantage at home, but they have also employed that same strategy to a passable 33-30 mark on the road.
The A’s will go for a four-game sweep in today’s matinee at Progressive Field (12:05 p.m. ET), and then, after hosting the Red Sox this weekend, they will embark on the aforementioned September slog. Oakland’s playoff odds first crossed the 50-percent threshold on Tuesday, and they edged a tick higher with yesterday’s 8-4 win in Cleveland. PECOTA still favors the Rays to capture the top spot in the crowded wild-card race, but it is more bullish about the A’s chances of earning a berth in the one-game playoff than ever before.
Throw strikes, make the plays, and watch other contenders bungle those two, most basic baseball tasks. It has worked for the Athletics—who, despite Yoenis Cespedes’ outstanding rookie season, still rank 20th in the league with a .258 team TAv—so far. And with each passing day, it seems that might be enough for Oakland to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
What to Watch for on Thursday
- The Mets will send Jonathon Niese to the hill looking to complete a sweep at Citizens Bank Park this afternoon, but unfortunately for the visitors, that’s precisely the matchup John Mayberry Jr. has been waiting for. Matt Harvey and co. snapped the 29-year-old outfielder’s five-game hitting streak in yesterday’s 3-2 Mets victory, but Mayberry has smacked three home runs in 25 lifetime meetings with Niese, producing a bizarre .280/.269/.680 triple slash by adding a double to his collection of seven hits, while failing to draw any walks. Even more amazingly, the right-handed hitting Mayberry hasn’t earned a single base on balls in 134 plate appearances versus southpaws this year (1:05 p.m. ET).
- Edwin Jackson has been on a strikeout binge this month, recording 39 of them in 29 2/3 innings over five starts. Unfortunately, he’s handed out six home runs and 12 walks to go with those punch outs, resulting in his worst ERA (4.45) for any single month this year. Jackson will try to tone things down in tonight’s series opener against the Cardinals, for whom he started Game Four of the World Series last year. If Yadier Molina is ready to return to Mike Matheny’s lineup, Jackson will need to tread carefully, as the St. Louis catcher is 7-for-8 with a home run in his past meetings with his former battery mate (7:05 p.m. ET).
- The Matt Moore everyone expected to see this season is officially back. After struggling to find the strike zone and to miss bats during the first few months, the 23-year-old has fanned at least five in each of his last seven starts and walked more than two only once during that stretch. Moore beat the Blue Jays with six innings of two-hit, one-run ball at Tropicana Field on Aug. 9, and he’ll try to deliver an encore in game one of four at the Rogers Centre tonight (7:07 p.m. ET).
- In 12 starts and 71 career innings of work against Arizona, Clayton Kershaw has served up only five home runs, all of them by players no longer donning Diamondbacks uniforms. The 24-year-old lefty suffered a 5 1/3-inning, five-run setback at Chase Field on July 6, but he has tossed 19 consecutive scoreless innings against the Diamondbacks at Chavez Ravine, the site of tonight’s duel with Ian Kennedy. Kershaw has a 2.27 ERA and a 100-to-27 K:BB in 15 home starts this year, and a 2.41 ERA and 0.70 WHIP overall this month, while Kennedy has been a gopher-ball machine of late, watching eight big flies soar out of the yard in five August outings (10:10 p.m. ET).
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