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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.