Eighteen months ago, I came out against the Eric Chavez contract extension, largely because of his ongoing problems with left-handed pitching. I pointed out some other problems as well:

Great numbers aside, I find Chavez to be a frustrating player to watch. Like his now-former teammate [Miguel] Tejada, Chavez seemed to have his worst at-bats in game-critical situations. I don’t mean just by outcome, but by approach, going up hacking against a pitcher who’d had trouble controlling the strike zone to the previous hitter or hitters. I don’t think this makes him a bad player, or reflects a lack of “clutch” ability, but in choosing a player to make a commitment to, it seems an odd choice for an organization that so values the strike zone. It’s effectively the opposite of the Scott Hatteberg deal, where the A’s rewarded a player whose plate approach set a standard, even though the player was well below average at the plate.

I mention this now because that trait showed up in spades last night in a critical game against the Rangers. With the A’s down 5-2 in the eighth, they opened the inning with back-to-back singles, bringing Chavez to the plate as the tying run. It was arguably the biggest moment of the season to date for the A’s, who needed to win to move within three games of the Angels, and Chavez gave it away. He hacked at the first pitch, a fastball up around head level and outside, and fouled out to Hank Blalock outside of third base. The A’s didn’t score in the eighth, didn’t score despite two on and none out again in the ninth–the game ending on a similar at-bat by Mark Kotsay, who grounded out weakly on a first pitch as the tying run–and now find themselves needing to run the table in the last week of the season.

The A’s had a chance for a significant comeback win, and they didn’t get there in part because two of their highest-paid hitters threw away at-bats on one pitch in the late innings. That’s inexcusable, and at least with Chavez, it’s part of the package.

Plate discipline isn’t just about drawing walks. It’s about having quality at-bats, all the time, but especially in high-leverage situations. Swinging at the first pitch can fit right in with plate discipline, but the swings have to be good ones. Chavez swing at a ball up in his eyes and popped the ball up for an easy out. Kotsay hit a two-hopper to the second baseman. Those are wasted at-bats for a team that wasted too many last night, and will likely now end up with all winter to think about them.

You want to measure clutch? Don’t focus on outcomes, but on process, on decisions. Don’t tell me a guy’s batting average with runners in scoring position, especially when you can see a guy like Jason Kendall get two hits in that situation last night without actually producing a run. Show me who goes up to the plate with a plan beyond, “swing!” Show me players who can work counts and give themselves the best opportunity to succeed through managing the at-bat.

With the loss, the A’s fell to four games back of the Angels. They join their Bay Area brethren, the Giants, in the exact same boat: four back with seven to play, the first four against the team they’re chasing. Can either team pull off the miracle? The A’s get to play at home, where they’re a .555 team. Unfortunately for them, the Angels are one of just six MLB teams with at least 40 road wins this year. The Angels look like the hotter team right now, although some of that is an inferior quality of opponents over the last two weeks. With everyone healthy–and the A’s might be there, as Will Carroll reports that Rich Harden may start Tuesday–the teams are pretty evenly matched. I said last week that the two teams would play close games decided by the middle and set-up relief pitchers, and I don’t see any reason to change that assessment, at least as long as the games stay relevant.

Every game is critical, but tonight may be the key. John Lackey, who’s quietly been great for four months, starts against Joe Blanton. With Bartolo Colon not scheduled to start in the series, Lackey is the best the Angels will throw at the A’s. If the A’s win tonight, they can use Harden in Game Two and be no worse than even in the pitching matchups the rest of the series.

His last two starts aside, Lackey has emerged as one of the AL’s best starters in 2005. I think he caps that run with a great start tonight, and makes it very hard for the A’s.

The Giants don’t face as tough an opponent as do the A’s, but they have challenges as well. Jake Peavy appeared to be healthy again in his last start against the Rockies, and he’ll be the first hurdle to clear tonight. The Giants are 9-4 since Barry Bonds came back on September 12, and while that’s not statistically significant, I’ll throw caution to the wind and suggest that there’s a relationship between the two. If not for a devastating extra-inning loss on September 14, the Giants might only be two back of the Padres, but now they find themselves needing a road sweep to keep their unlikely run alive.

As with the AL version, the NL version rests heavily on tonight’s outcome. The Padres’ rotation drops off considerably after Peavy, and it’s almost certain that each game after the first will be decided in the bullpens. The Padres have an edge there (has anyone noticed that Rudy Seanez is striking out 12.7 men per nine?), especially with the arrival of lefty specialist Craig Breslow, who fills the one gap they’ve had for years, one especially important when facing a team with Bonds.

The A’s and Giants don’t need to sweep mathematically–taking three of four would leave them two back with three to play–but it’s their most realistic shot at staying in the race. I don’t think either team has the horses to pull it off, with the A’s having the slightly better chance.

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