The A’s reached the halfway mark of their season Sunday, and it’s tough to find too much fault with what took place over the first 81 games.
They lead the majors with a 51-30 record after a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins that capped a three-game sweep for Oakland. The A’s also find themselves at or near the top of the big leagues in many significant statistical categories. But what’s that sports cliché about the danger of reading your own press clippings?
Perhaps the A’s biggest second-half challenge will be not to lose the competitive edge that got them to this point in the first place. If they need motivation, they need only look at the teams chasing them in the American League West standings.
The Los Angeles Angels trail Oakland by 5½ games for first, but they’re playing good baseball and have climbed to 10 games above .500. One spot back, the Seattle Mariners are 44-38. And both clubs surely will be looking to bolster their rosters as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches.
The A’s don’t show signs of a team that’s on the verge of a nose-dive, but even so, it’s probably a healthy thing that they’ve got a couple teams in their rear-view mirror that appear to pose a threat.
“We’ve been playing tremendous baseball,” starting pitcher Tommy Milone said. “Obviously that’s what we expect of ourselves. The goal now is just to keep it up. We can’t get soft. We’ve gotta continue to play good baseball. It’s not gonna be hard for us. We’re gonna go out and battle.”
Sunday’s victory at Marlins Ballpark exemplified a lot of what’s gone right for the A’s. They entered the season wondering if they could make up for season-ending injuries to starters Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. To this point, the rotation has answered the bell, despite some shaky outings over the past week-and-a-half.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Milone, Freiman help A’s edge out Marlins]
Milone, one of the pitchers who entered the rotation when Parker and Griffin went down in spring training, came through Sunday on an afternoon when the A’s had just three relievers rested and ready.
He delivered seven sharp innings, allowing just four hits and three runs (two earned), and he added some fine defensive work to aid his cause. Milone is 6-3 with a respectable 3.79 ERA, a solid contributor at the back of a rotation that’s had its depth sternly tested. The A’s 3.16 overall ERA is second in the majors to Washington’s 3.07.
Jim Johnson’s first-half struggles threw a wrench in the bullpen plans, but the A’s have improvised in that department too. Sean Doolittle is proving to be a very reliable closer, and with Doolittle unavailable Sunday, Ryan Cook notched his first save of the season. One thing to watch from this point forward is whether Cook works his way back into a prominent late-inning role after injuries set him back in the first half. Can Johnson be a contributing factor, or might the A’s swing a trade if they find a taker?
[RELATED: Francis hero on not-so-perfect day for A’s]
First baseman Nate Freiman, who took a redeye flight Sunday morning to join the A’s from Triple-A when Josh Reddick joined the disabled list, hit a three-run homer to sink the Marlins and clinch a sweep. Oakland has proven there’s safety in roster numbers. Is there another major league team that effectively utilizes so many different players, including those who might be lingering in the minors?
Josh Donaldson (61 RBI), Brandon Moss (59) and Yoenis Cespedes (55) headline the offense, but Derek Norris has emerged as a solid run producer, leadoff Coco Crisp has enjoyed some big moments and John Jaso and Stephen Vogt have also come through while splitting catching duties with Norris.
[REWIND: Cespedes delivers in front of ‘home’ crowd]
One player the A’s could use a stronger second half from is shortstop Jed Lowrie, who is hitting .217 after being one of the A’s top hitters in 2013.
But Oakland has scored a major-league high 418 runs, and if the final 81 games play out similar to the first 81, the A’s will be in fine shape as they take aim at finally advancing past the American League Division Series.
“It’s certainly a good first half,” manager Bob Melvin said. “We seem to have gotten a little stronger here. We seem to have gotten some of the bullpen roles ironed out and we’re better for it. But it’s only the halfway point.”