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The Oakland Athletics‘ fantastic finishes have become something of a tradition, one that they have to hope they live up to yet again this season. “It’s what we’re known for and it was that way before I got here,” said catcher Jason Kendall, in his third season with the Athletics since being acquired from Pittsburgh. “When you think of the Oakland A’s, you think of big second halves.”

The Athletics have had a better record after the All-Star break than before in each of the past eight seasons. Most years, the second half record has been markedly better. In all, the Athletics were 375-307 before the All-Star break from 1999-2006 and 376-217 after. That works out to a fine .550 winning percentage in the first half and a sizzling .634 mark in the second half, including a .655 post-break winning percentage in the past six years.

Third baseman Eric Chavez believes it is part of the way Athletics General Manager Billy Beane is forced to do business while sharing a market with the more popular and well-heeled San Francisco Giants across the bay. “It’s just a fact of life that we’re always going to have a certain amount of turnover with our roster because of the economics,” Chavez said. “I really believe it takes us a while to get going because of that. We’re breaking new guys in every year, usually a certain amount of young players, and it takes us a while to get everybody acclimated to the big leagues and then for everyone to jell. It just takes more time for us than the average team to put it all together.”

Their record is just 44-43 with one game left before the All-Star break, and they are in third place in the American League West, nine games behind Angels and 5 ½ in back of the Mariners, far from a successful defense of their winning the division last season. The Athletics also are eight games off the pace that Cleveland is setting for the AL wild card.

“Everyone knows our history,” said Bob Geren, in his first season as manager after serving on the Athletics coaching staff under Ken Macha the previous four years. “I don’t see any reason why we can’t go on another second-half run this season. We’ve hung in there pretty well in the first half under some pretty adverse circumstances. I think things are bound to get better in the second half and we’re due to have some things go our way.”

The Athletics have been decimated by injuries as they have had to use the Disabled List 16 times this season. Among those currently on the DL include such key players as starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza, closer Huston Street, setup man Justin Duchscherer, designated hitter Mike Piazza, and rookie outfielder Travis Buck. Duchscherer is out for the season now that he’s going to have hip surgery. Kendall notes, “It’s really amazing that we’re still in the race considering all the injuries. A lot of teams would be buried. We’re not in great shape but we’re not in bad shape.”

While the Athletics have finished first in the AL West four times and second four times in the last eight years, Chavez admits to being more worried this year than in other seasons. “This is the strongest the division has been in a while,” Chavez said. “The Angels have just played so great and the Mariners have played well, too. The Angels are so good that you can’t help but have a little bit of doubt about anyone being able to catch them. The one thing we have to watch out for is that they just get so far ahead that we fall out of sight. We need to stay close for as long as we can, so we can be in position to make a run.”

The Athletics amazingly have been able to stay among the top teams in the AL for nine seasons despite having one of the lowest payrolls. While the feeling is that Beane will eventually have to swallow hard and rebuild one of these years, this isn’t that year.

Yet, the question persists over whether or not this version of the Athletics is quite as good as recent ones. The Athletics have always relied on strong pitching, particularly excellent young starters. The starting pitching has been great-the Athletics rotation has the best ERA in the AL with a 3.27 mark. Dan Haren leads the AL with a 4.7 SNLVAR, while Joe Blanton is second at 4.1; Chad Gaudin is fifth at 3.7. While they may not be the equal of the Athletics’ great triumvirate of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, Haren and Blanton are only 26 years old, while Gaudin is just 24. The remarkable part of the rotation’s success is that the staff’s most-talented pitcher, right-hander Rich Harden, has made only four starts this season while slowed by a sore shoulder. Harden returned to the rotation yesterday against Seattle after being used in relief in recent weeks to build up his arm strength.

“We all know what the Big Three did here, but it’s not a case of us trying to live up to their legacy,” Haren said. “We’re just a bunch of young guys trying to establishing ourselves in the major leagues and having some fun while we’re doing it.”

In contrast to the rotation’s good work, the Athletics’ bullpen is only 10th in the AL in relief ERA at 4.49. Among the pitchers being counted on coming into the season, Street has been limited to 18 innings and Duchscherer has worked 16 1/3 innings.

Even more worrisome is an offense that is next-to-last in the AL in runs scored with an average of 4.4 a game. Only Jack Cust and Nick Swisher rank in the league’s top 40 in VORP, while three regulars are below replacement level: center fielder Mark Kotsay (-5.2), shortstop Bobby Crosby (-5.3) and Kendall (-12.7).

“I know our offense is better than what it has shown to this point,” Chavez said. “We’ve been fortunate that our starting pitching has carried us. The young guys have really made the difference. I don’t know where we would be without them but we’re going to have to start giving them some help in the second half.”

  • The Mariners are continuing their pursuit of the Angels in the AL West race with a new manager at the helm after Mike Hargrove shockingly resigned last Sunday just hours before his team won its eighth straight games. Bench coach John McLaren has been entrusted to keep the surprising Mariners in the race as he gets his first crack at managing in the major leagues. While McLaren had interviewed for the jobs skippering with the Reds, Devil Rays, and Dodgers, he immediately jumped at the chance when offered it by Mariners GM Bill Bavasi. “I had a couple of questions I wanted to ask (Hargrove),” McLaren told the Seattle Times. “I wanted to make sure it was all right with Mike. He assured me it was. He supported me, he said he recommended me for the job, and then I knew it was right.”

    Still, McLaren never expected to become a major-league manager this year, even though he began preparing for his opportunity in the early 1970s when he topped out as player as a backup catcher in Double-A. “I didn’t have real good bat speed,” he said. “I started studying the game. Back when I interviewed for the Dodger job (in 2005), I pulled out a scouting report I had on the Southern League in 1973. I was always prepared. I had something on every hitter, every pitcher in the league. I’ve always felt in order to get respect, you’ve got to be prepared. And you can’t fool anybody.”

    McLaren’s last managing job was in 1985, when he finished a three-year run with Double-A Knoxville. However, he has served as a coach under Lou Piniella, Cito Gaston, Joe Morgan, Jimy Williams, and Hargrove. McLaren said he feels the key to being a successful manager will be the same person he was as a coach. “I’ve got to be in the clubhouse. That’s my trademark,” McLaren said. “I think I’m a fair person, I think I’ve got good people skills. I get out and know the players, I know what makes them tick. I motivate ’em, I talk to ’em. I’m going to be the same person I’ve been the past 21 years in the big leagues. I’ll be accessible. I like to have fun, kid around. But, I also like to play hardball.”

  • Pete Mackanin is becoming the interim manager’s manager. Mackanin took over in Cincinnati this past week after the Reds fired Jerry Narron, and will run the club for the remainder of the season after serving as the organization’s advance scout the past two years. Mackanin was also the interim manager with Pittsburgh at the end of the 2005 season, leading the Pirates to a 12-14 record after being promoted from bench coach to replace the fired Lloyd McClendon. Mackanin was stung when he was not even given the chance to interview for the job on a permanent basis. He was instead offered the manager’s position at rookie-level Bradenton while Jim Tracy was hired at the big-league level.

    Mackanin would like nothing more to get a chance after being in professional baseball for 39 years and knows getting a half-season to prove his abilities is a big opportunity. “I’m going into this with eyes wide open, and this isn’t a pleasant situation to get into,” Mackanin said. “I’d like to help this organization get on track, and it has been a tough situation. Somebody has to get us through it, and I’d like to think I can help. I’ll use my experience and handle the team the way I know how to handle a team.” Noted Reds GM Wayne Krivsky to the Dayton Daily News, “It’s amazing to me this guy hasn’t been considered more than he has for (manager’s) job.”

  • Few teams in all of professional sports could use a new direction more than the Pirates. They haven’t had a winning season since 1992, and are only two sub-.500 finishes from tying the record of 16 straight by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48. The Pirates have a chance to change that direction after Chief Executive Officer Kevin McClatchy announced this past week that he will be leaving the organization at the end of the season. McClatchy had already ceded control of the Pirates to Bob Nutting, whose family has held majority ownership of the team since 2004, in January. McClatchy had put together an ownership group that purchased the Pirates for $95 million, keeping the franchise from possibly moving, and he also overcame steep odds to gain funding for PNC Park, which opened in 2001 and is generally acclaimed as one of the best facilities in the major leagues.

    However, the Pirates have done nothing but continue losing and the fans have grown so tired of it that they organized a protest last month during a game at PNC Park. However, Nutting isn’t saying much about what he is looking for in a new CEO or if he will be empowered to fire General Manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy, who have one year each left on their contracts. “I don’t want to box ourselves into looking for one specific type of person,” Nutting said. “Obviously, that person is going to be a very important part of the organization just like Kevin has been. It is going to be a transition for us. Kevin has done so much for this franchise and this region, and we are forever grateful for that, but we are also excited about continuing to move forward for what I think is a bright future for this franchise.”

  • From the Rumor Mill: It becomes clearer with each passing day that Alex Rodriguez will opt out of his contract with the Yankees and become a free agent. It is generally assumed that the Yankees won’t make much of an effort to bring him back. Speculation is already running rampant as to where he will land in 2008, and the leading candidates seem to be the Giants, Angels, and Cubs. … Look for left-hander Mark Buehrle to eventually sign a four-year, $56-million contract extension with the White Sox once he drops his full no-trade clause demand and settle for a limited no-trade. … Toronto is having buyer’s remorse about right-hander A.J. Burnett, who continually complains of shoulder pain though doctors keep finding no structural problems, and may be willing to eat part of the $36 million left on the final three years of his contract if they can find the right trade this upcoming winter. … While recent arthroscopic knee surgery has fueled rumors that he will retire at the end of the season, Kansas City designated hitter Mark Sweeney says he wants to play in 2008. Sweeney can become a free agent, and likely won’t be back with the Royals. … The White Sox will almost certainly non-tender left fielder Scott Podsednik in the offseason, as they’ve grown weary waiting out his many injuries. … The Twins may soon call up Ken Harvey (an All-Star with Kansas City in 2004) from Rochester, in an effort to bolster its offense. … Arizona could use some pitching help and perhaps also an outfielder, and is said to be willing to deal from their surplus of corner infielders that include first basemen Conor Jackson and Tony Clark, and third basemen Chad Tracy and Mark Reynolds. … The Cubs have a number of interesting players at Triple-A Iowa that would be willing to trade for pitching help, including second baseman Corey Patterson, resurgent shortstop Ronny Cedeno, and outfielder Matt Murton … Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly, who led Arizona to the 2001 World Series title, could have strong interest in interviewing for the manager’s job in Cincinnati, as he grew up in Coshocton, Ohio, and attended Ohio University. … Though Kevin Towers has acquired Michael Barrett and Milton Bradley in recent weeks, he would like to add one more bat to bolster the Padres‘ NL West title defense. … While finding a set-up reliever has been at the top of Boston’s wish list all season, they may be finding a solution internally, as right-hander Manny Delcarmen has been lights-out recently. … Sent down to Triple-A for the second time this season, don’t look for right-hander Anthony Reyes to return to St. Louis until the minor league season is over in September. … Atlanta is likely to step up its pursuit of a starting pitcher, as the Braves are losing patience with right-hander Kyle Davies.

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