While the rest of the league usually attaches the adjective “walk-off” to things like home runs or doubles, the A’s seem more inclined to use it before things like “bunts” and “return throws to pitchers too busy acting like five-year old children who aren’t allowed to buy what they see in the local Toys ‘R Us to bother catching the ball.” While Ramon Hernandez‘s impersonation of Jake Taylor in Game 1 of the 2003 ALDS certainly carried more weight, Jason Kendall‘s scamper down the line to cap off yesterday’s A’s-Angels battle royale was equally as improbable and equally as exciting.
It’s cliche, but the English language is beginning to run out of adjectives to continue to describe the quality of baseball the A’s have been playing lately. After dropping the first game of their last series against the Angels on July 18, the A’s were 8.5 games behind the Angels. Since then, they’re 19-3, blowing past the Angels who’ve stood still at 9-12. Oakland has the second-highest third-order winning percentage–trailing only the Red Sox–and has dragged their post-season odds have shot from less than one half of one percent to the third best total in the AL.
This was the kind of game that exposed virtually all of the weaknesses of the Angels’ roster. With Garret Anderson out with tendonitis in his knee, the Angels were forced to bat several players much higher in their batting order than they would have liked (to say nothing of Mike Scioscia’s continual refusal to bat Adam Kennedy‘s .375 OBP higher than ninth while sticking Chone Figgins (.332) and Darin Erstad (.341) first and second). Wednesday, the frustrating part for Anaheim fans wasn’t that Ben Molina was batting fifth, it’s that he might well have been the best choice to do so. Molina’s .469 SLG was the team’s second highest total behind only Vladimir Guerrero and he’s the only hitter likely to encourage the A’s to consider pitching to the Angels only real hitting threat.
But after a grand slam on Tuesday night and another home run in the second inning yesterday afternoon, the A’s took Guerrero out of the equation, intentionally walking him three times. The highest indignity was the top of the seventh. With Orlando Cabrera on third and two out, the A’s intentionally walked Guerrero to pitch to Casey Kotchman. After Molina came up to pinch hit for Kotchman and Guerrero stole second–a recurring theme for baserunners against the A’s this year–the green and gold went so far as to intentionally pass on Molina to pitch to Steve Finley.
While Finley made the A’s pay with a two run double, the situation is indicative of the Angels’ situation this year. Their two major free agent signings of the off-season, Finley and Cabrera, have mustered just 8.3 VORP combined, a total that seems high given their .249/.306/.354 and .225/.280/.381 lines, respectively. With the 33-year old Anderson continuing his decline and attrition from last year, the Angels are quickly becoming a one-hitter team with little help on the way. Kotchman is becoming the AL version of Sean Burroughs–power may be the last skill to develop, but those two have a long way to go–leaving Dallas McPherson, expected back sometime this month, the only real hope for power in the future. Opposing pitchers are going to find it more and more tempting to pitch around Guerrero and it’s going to cost the Angels more in the standings than it may appear from the runs scored because Guerrero may never see another pitch to hit (not that that’s ever stopped him from swinging before) in an important game situation.
The big problem the last two games wasn’t as much the lineup and A’s ability to neutralize Guerrero as it was the normally reliable bullpen. On Wednesday, it was Scot Shields coughing up three runs to blow the lead; yesterday, Brendan Donnelly gave up four on two home runs to Jay Payton and Eric Chavez. These failures weren’t so much a result of the Angels’ inability to continue to put together a bullpen out of retreads and castoffs, but more the result of running into a buzzsaw of a team in the A’s.
No one, not even A’s GM Billy Beane, seems to know why the A’s have such a flair for starting slowly and then catching fire later in the season. Whatever the reason, the A’s are finally catching up to their third-order winning percentage while the Angels are regressing back to theirs. Able to replace injured starters Octavio Dotel and Erubiel Durazo with Huston Street and Dan Johnson, the A’s used their deep farm system to immunize themselves from a bad case of the DL. Their defense–second best in the majors to the White Sox–has yielded a pitching staff on which everyone except Ricardo Rincon has a 4.21 ERA or better based on some obscenely low BABIP rates. There’s likely some regression coming from the trade deadline acquisitions, but other than Johnson and fifth starter Kirk Saarloos, no one’s playing dramatically over their heads.
Yesterday’s game will likely be seen as the culmination of months of inevitability, the once moribund Oakland squad finally overtaking their more free-swinging opponents to gracefully ride off into the sunset. It’s not that cut and dry. The A’s and Angels have seven more games against each other as the season winds down, but the A’s have been the best team in the division for two-and-a-half months. They won’t continue playing .800 ball, but with their easier schedule–the A’s have most of their remaining games against the Central while the Angels still have to play the East–it’s Oakland’s division to lose.