The Oakland A's took another step in proving they belong in the American League playoff hunt when they took two of three from the Los Angeles Angels this week. After Thursday’s off day – their first since July 23 – the A's head to the Midwest, where they will take on the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox.
After winning the series against the Angels, Oakland finds itself percentage points ahead of Baltimore and Detroit for the first Wild Card spot. The team will now hit the road where its 26-25 record is a vast improvement from last season’s 31-50 mark. After three in Chicago, the A's head to Kansas City to play the Royals, winners of seven of their last 10 games.
Since acquiring Kevin Youkilis from the Boston Red Sox, the South Siders have gone 22-16, rounding into a serious competitor to the incumbent favorite Tigers, who added Prince Fielder in the offseason. The White Sox have hit the fourth-most homers in baseball, with Adam Dunn leading the way with 31. A.J. Pierzynski (21 homers), Alex Rios (18), Paul Konerko (18) and Dayan Viciedo (16) make Chicago’s lineup deep with power threats.
The A’s have seen a noticeable drop-off in the production from a number of their pitchers, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen, to begin the season’s stretch run. Ryan Cook has gone from an All-Star to a player with a 10.13 ERA in his last eight appearances. Jarrod Parker has a 5.94 ERA in his last six starts after having a 2.46 ERA over his first 13.
Rookie hurler A.J. Griffin hit the disabled list with a shoulder injury last week and Tom Milone has allowed 16 earned runs in his last 19 innings. These are not good signs for a team so reliant on run prevention.
The good news for the A's is the welcomed return of staff ace Brandon McCarthy (6-3, 3.91 ERA) who starts in Friday’s series opener against Gavin Floyd (8-9, 4.43 ERA).
McCarthy hasn’t thrown in a major league game for nearly two months. But his last start on June 19 gave him his sixth-consecutive win before he landed on the disabled list with discomfort in his shoulder. The lanky right-hander was dominant in his second rehab start with Triple-A Sacramento last weekend, striking out nine hitters in six innings.
More encouraging than the strikeout numbers was his ability to throw both his cut-fastball and sinker for strikes on either side of the plate. That’s become McCarthy’s signature over his last two seasons with the A's. But scouts wonder if a change in his arm angle since leaving the Texas Rangers in 2009 will continually hurt his shoulder for the long haul. The A’s hope not, because another DL stint for McCarthy means the club will have to dip back into the minor leagues for a replacement with Griffin currently out with a shoulder injury of his own.
Floyd has always been tough on the A’s throughout his career, allowing just a 2.17 ERA and 1.16 WHIP against them in eight starts. The former fourth-overall pick of the Philadelphia Phillies has seen his ERA drop each year since 2008. His last start against the A's came back in April when he allowed a run on two hits in seven innings, but got the loss thanks to Milone’s shutout performance over eight frames.
Milone (9-9, 3.91 ERA) will throw in Saturday’s second game of the series against fellow southpaw Francisco Liriano (3-10, 5.03 ERA). Liriano will be making his third start since being acquired by Chicago from the Twins, where he had a 5.31 ERA in 17 starts and five relief appearances.
Although he hasn’t received a win to show for it, Liriano has pitched well in his first two starts with his new club. He allowed a combined three earned runs in 11 innings with 12 punch-outs. Always owning plus stuff from the left side of the rubber, Liriano might have simply needed a change of scenery from Minnesota, a place where he hadn’t put together a good season since 2010.
The lefty has already made two starts against the A’s this season with Twins, striking out 24 hitters in 14 combined innings. That trend should continue given Oakland’s recent tendency to swing-and-miss. The team has struck out 123 times in its last 12 games.
Milone is looking to buck a disturbing trend, although rookies tend to struggle in the war of attrition this time of year. Since his masterful 10-strikeout performance over the Yankees on July 20, Milone hasn’t been the same pitcher. Perhaps most concerning were his two most recent starts at home – where he had been especially effective. He combined to yield 11 runs in 12 innings in his two-straight losses to Tampa Bay and Toronto.
But Thursday’s day off means another day of rest for Milone, who gets five instead of the four he got before those previous two outings.
Jarrod Parker (7-6, 3.55 ERA) and Chris Sale (13-3, 2.59 ERA) square off in a rematch of Parker’s major league debut back on April 25. Parker was good in his first outing where he faced the team he grew up watching from Fort Wayne, Ind. He allowed one run on seven hits in 6.1 innings.
Parker’s outstanding eight-game run between May 23 and July 2 might have set expectations too high for the right-hander. In those eight starts, he gave up just 10 runs in 52.2 innings (1.71 ERA), and allowed 34 hits with opponents amassing a 554 OPS against him.
Since then, that OPS has jumped all the way up to 790 in six starts. Less than two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Parker could be feeling the effects of arm fatigue. He threw 136.1 innings between Double-A and the majors with the Arizona Diamondbacks last season. He will be coming into Sunday’s start with 137.1 innings under his belt this year. Should he struggle against the White Sox, Parker's next turn in the rotation could be skipped if the A's want to take advantage of another off day on Monday following the series.
Sale has quickly become one of the best young pitchers in the American League. The 6’6” left-hander features a power fastball and hard slider that might be the closest thing baseball has seen to Randy Johnson since he retired.
Sale was very effective in his first 17 appearances of the season (one in relief), allowing just 83 hits in 110.2 innings with 102 strikeouts. But he hit a mini rough patch in his two starts on July 21 and 27, when he allowed 10 runs in 13.1 innings to the Tigers and the Texas Rangers.
New manager Robin Ventura elected to skip Sale’s turn in the rotation, giving him nine days of rest between starts, and it paid off nicely. Sale went on to throw eight innings against the Royals, giving up just two runs.