Well, that was a different Athletics team that showed up last night in the Motor City. This was despite A.J. Griffin's best efforts to turn the affair into a slow pitch softball game, giving up his Major League-leading 31st and 32nd home runs in just over five innings of work. The offense, aside from Yoenis Cespedes and Seth Smith, finally woke up and spread the wealth, amassing twelve hits en route to an 8-6 victory to open a crucial four game set in Motown. With just a bit of optimism heading into game two tonight against cyber-Verlander, who has dominated the A's by winning his last six starts against them with a suspiciously robotic 0.63 ERA, it is time to turn said optimism into (perhaps) wishful avarice.
In response to Derick Hutchinson's very well written article on why the mythical bats and fireball arms of the Tigers put the Athletics in an unfavorable position, here are five reasons that this current incarnation of the Athletics can and (gulp) WILL win this series, and perhaps a later playoff encounter:
1. Bullpen Strength (All the Rage.)
No current Athletics reliever has an ERA over 4. Three-fifths of the Tigers' pen would only be dominating in an Arena Baseball League, with ERA's either approaching or over 5. Yes, Joaquin Benoit and Drew Smyly have been great, but Al (Capital of New Mexico) and Phil Coke are being called on to pitch in key spots...in 2013. No thanks. The finishing trio of Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and the rage monster Grant Balfour shorten the game in such a way that batting practice machines such as A.J. Griffin and Tommy Milone only need to be replacement level through five or six innings. This is an amazing luxury to have in today's baseball, and if and when the young arm's for the Green and Gold get on track, no team will want to face the A's in either a wild card playoff or short series.
2. Bob Melvin and the Art of Platoon (insert movie reference here)
I always had an unhealthy level of disdain for Melvin's predecessor, Bob Geren. It was not necessarily his fault that the Athletics were experiencing Kansas City Royal-syndrome during his tenure, mixing underperforming prospects and punchless veterans during a definition of mediocre 4 1/2 year period from 2007-2011. However, his game management was always suspect, either leaning to heavily on unproven players to produce, or pulling the rug out from them in such a way that their confidence was never the same. Daric Barton is still recovering from this. In contrast, Bob Melvin just wins games. He did it with the Diamondbacks, and through smoke, mirrors, and a love of the platoon, he is doing it with the A's. Brandon Moss's boomstick or Nate Freiman's Andre the Giant with a clutch bat persona at first. Matt Garza's mortal enemy, Eric Sogard shares time with Alberto Callaspo, who also can and has been used at shortstop or third. The outfield, despite holes in the swings of Cespedes, Reddick, and Young, gives the A's production in those crucial moments not measured by Sabermetrics. The value of the overarching lack of ego on this squad is incalculable, and the consistency of Bob Melvin's juggling act day-to-day is a huge reason for that.
3. Coco Crisp is Full of Essential Nutrients and Vitamins
I was a little too young to fully appreciate Rickey Henderson. Rickey being Rickey meant victories for those Bash Brother squads of the late eighties and early nineties, and people tend to forget that his table setting (along with the contributions of such gamers as Walt Weiss, Terry Steinbach, and Carney Lansford) was perhaps one of the crucial factors in the last golden age of the Green and Gold. Coco Crisp is my Rickey. While not the same consistent threat on the basepaths or at the plate, Coco Crisp has the immeasurable knack for coming up big when it counts. See Game 3 of the ALDS last year where he absolutely robbed Prince Fielder of a homerun with a catch that will probably stand forever in my top 5 grabs of all time. See, last night, where Coco made a perhaps-game-saving grab in center to rob Matt Tuiasosopo of a dinger. Coco's bat has woken up. He's hot, he's launching bombs, and he makes the rest of the Athletics lineup that much more confident and potent. He is an X-factor in a small market, which again is a crazy luxury you would not expect the A's to have.
4. A Rotation of Young Arms...WITH PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE.
Second-year players Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin each have a playoff start. Against the Tigers. Now, perhaps this does not mean much in terms of the past equaling future results, but the first-start jitters are no longer a factor. Jarrod Parker has secretly been one of the top five pitchers in ALL OF BASEBALL since late May, compiling an 8-0 record over a sixteen game streak without a loss. Bartolo Colon should be back my playoff time to continue his improbable A.L. Cy Young Honorable Mention season. If you haven't watch Sonny Gray pitch, he has the raw ability to step into the rookie-on-display role that Parker, Milone, and Griffin inhabited last year...with the ability to strike people out from all angles. Add a Griffin or Milone start that doesn't completely suck, and ladies and gentlemen you have a legitimate starting rotation (with Brett Anderson possibly around to spot start.) The Tigers have a very strong 1 through 5, and perhaps hold a solid edge in this department over the A's. However, the advantage has lessened after the novelty of last year's magical run has dissipated. This A's rotation has the ability to do more than just hold the game for our stellar bullpen. They can actually steal us a game or two.
5. The Relativity of Pressure
This is a simple one, but probably the most important of all. Despite the Oakland Athletics' fan base finally starting to come out of the shadows and drizzle lightly into the park on any given promotional giveaway day (and for playoff games,) the A's are not and will not be expected to compete with the likes of the Rangers, Red Sox, and Tigers over this stretch run and, let's hope, the playoffs. The Tigers are built to win and win now, with a $148 million dollar payroll centralized cyber-Verlander, Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez (include Austin Jackson and Torii-the-ageless-one Hunter as well.) The Tigers play in a market desperate for a symbol and for a winner. With the weight of Detroit and national expectations on their shoulders, it would only be natural for the minutiae of a swing or the location of a fastball to be affected by the nerves associated with all of this pressure. In contrast, the A's have about 40% of the payroll and can only serve to benefit as a whole in any pressure situation. Any more pennant-race experience for these young kids is good experience, and when the fans do show up, the Coliseum is one of the secret-best atmospheres in the game. The A's have more than a puncher's chance, and when the opponent is attempting to fight several other battles at home, in the media, and within themselves, it looks very promising that the A's can FINALLY get over the hump against this All-Star assemblage in Detroit.
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