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Athletics, Cardinals surging toward playoff position

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Oakland and St. Louis both won again last night. The A’s for the fourth time in a row and for the eleventh time in thirteen games. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have won seven in a row, nine of ten and eleven of thirteen themselves. The A’s win over Seattle last night, combined with the Houston Astros loss to the Rockies, move them to within one game of the AL West lead. The Cards’ win over the Nationals combined with the Phillies’ loss moves them to within one game of the second Wild Card slot. They sit two behind the Brewers for the first slot and only four games back of the first place Cubs.

Absolutely no one picked the A’s to make the playoffs in 2018. If someone says they did, ask for receipts. As the season’s first couple of months unfolded, picking them to not contend seemed like the smart play. They trailed the Astros by 11.5 games as late as June 15. Last night Bob Melvin chalked the team’s success up to “hitting a lot of home runs and winning close games.” That’s true. It’s also true that the team has put together a huge number of spare parts and castoffs from elsewhere, particularly on the pitching staff — Edwin Jackson? Old friends Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill? Relievers Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley ? — with an underrated core of Matts Chapman and Olson, Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis. It’s a balanced roster in an era of a striking lack of competitive balance and everyone is exceeding expectations.

The Cardinals are usually considered contenders, but when they fired manager Mike Matheny in mid-July they were only a game over .500 and seven and a half out in the division. It took them a little time to get some momentum under interim manager Mike Shildt — the Cardinals were sellers at the deadline, unloading Tommy Pham and dumping disappointing reliever Greg Holland — but they’ve put it together in spectacular fashion in recent weeks. An injury that took massively underachieving outfielder Dexter Fowler out of the lineup and allowed for more playing time for the speedy Harrison Bader helped. Matt Carpenter playing out-of-his-mind MVP ball has helped even more. Jose Martinez and even old timer Yadier Molina have been solid offensive contributors. Mood can’t hurt either, and getting rid of Matheny had to have helped that, at least if you believe the stories about the clubhouse atmosphere before he was canned.

Whatever the causes — and in baseball there are always several — the A’s and the Cards are on fire and are making real races in divisions that were not expected to have them this season. Now we watch to see if they can keep the pressure on the Astros, the Cubs and all of the Wild Card contenders for the final month and a half of the campaign.

Maddon: Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again for Angels this year

Shohei Ohtani
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Shohei Ohtani won’t pitch again this season for the Los Angeles Angels after straining his right forearm in his second start, manager Joe Maddon says.

Ohtani likely will return to the Angels’ lineup as their designated hitter this week, Maddon said Tuesday night before the club opened a road series against the Seattle Mariners.

The Angels’ stance on Ohtani is unsurprising after the club announced he had strained the flexor pronator mass near the elbow of his pitching arm. The two-way star’s recovery from the strain requires him to abstain from throwing for four to six weeks, which covers most of the shortened 2020 season.

“I’m not anticipating him pitching at all this year,” Maddon said. “Any kind of throwing program is going to be very conservative.”

Ohtani was injured Sunday in the second inning of his second start since returning to the mound following Tommy John surgery in late 2018. Ohtani issued five walks during the 42-pitch inning against the Houston Astros, with his velocity dropping later in the frame.

The arm injury is another obstacle in Ohtani’s path to becoming the majors’ first true two-way player in decades. He made 10 mound starts as a rookie in 2018 before injuring his elbow, but he served as the Angels’ regular designated hitter last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Ohtani has pitched in only three games since June 2018, but the Angels still believe in Ohtani’s ability to be a two-way player, Maddon said.

“I’m seeing that he can,” Maddon said. “We’ve just got to get past the arm maladies and figure that out. But I’ve seen it. He’s just such a high-end arm, and we’ve seen what he can do in the batter’s box. Now maybe it might get to the point where he may choose to do one thing over the other and express that to us. I know he likes to hit. In my mind’s eye, he’s still going to be able to do this.”

The veteran manager believes Ohtani will benefit from a full spring training and a normal season. Ohtani wasn’t throwing at full strength for a starter when the coronavirus pandemic shut down spring training in March because he wasn’t expected to pitch until May as he returned from surgery.

“Going into a regular season with a normal number of starts and all the things that permit guys to be ready for a year, that’s what we need to see is some normalcy before you make that kind of determination,” Maddon said.

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