By Jason Wojciechowski on August 27, 2003 at 4:18 PM
Maybe I should proclaim the A's season in dire straits more often. Since that declaration, all the A's have managed to do is tie the Mariners in the West and maintain the tie with the Red Sox in the wild card. Their odds of making the playoffs now stand at 60.8%, compared to the Mariners' 65.9% and the Red Sox 74.1%. They're still behind, then, and the loss of Mulder still doesn't help, but they're peaking at just about the right time, as usual, and I'm liking their chances more and more, especially given Seattle's recent slide and injury troubles.
Two nights ago, Oakland got into a little mini-slug-fest with the Blue Jays, winning 8-6, though it was only made that close because Ricardo Rincon gave up a three-run homer to Josh Phelps in the 8th inning. At that point, Ken Macha handed the ball to Keith Foulke, the A's scored an insurance run in the 9th, and closed things out in bottom half.
With Scott Hatteberg still laid up, Billy McMillon got another start at DH and in the leadoff spot, and got on base twice, though one of those was by being hit by a pitch. Terrence Long actually had a nice game, going four for five with two doubles, providing more ammunition for the "leave him in the seven hole" folks (that plural may be misleading, since I might be the only folk calling for this move on these grounds). Miguel Tejada continued his torrid streak with three hits, including his 21st homer of the year. Eric Chavez was not so torrid, but he at least got a single in the first that led to a run.
Chris Singleton left early, which was reported at first as an injury, but ESPN quotes the San Francisco Chronicle saying that it was actually for disciplinary reasons. Singleton shouldn't mouth off or not run out hits; he doesn't have the talent to get away with that. The A's like him defensively in center field, but it wouldn't really break their hearts, I think, to replace him in the ninth hole with Eric Byrnes for the rest of the year. At least Byrnes can threaten to hit an extra-base hit sometimes, even if he can't get a good jump on a ball to save his life.
Speaking of defense, Oakland got a decent starting outing from Ted Lilly, who went six and two thirds innings, giving up two earned runs (out of three total) on eight hits and three walks (which is too many baserunners, despite the low runs total). He also got seven strikeouts, which is his best total since July 2, when he struck out nine in just four and two thirds, though he also gave up five runs in that game. My impression of Lilly is that he has great stuff, but his relatively low strikeout totals tell me that he's not particularly adept at harnessing it. He got results in this game, though, my grousing aside.
This was the game that moved the A's into a tie for first place with the Mariners. The Red Sox beat them 8-1, so the A's had to win to simultaneously keep pace with Boston and make up ground on Seattle.
Last night was a little more harrowing, as the A's got shut down by Jason Johnson and the Orioles bullpen for twelve innings. Fortunately, the A's held Baltimore to just one run in twelve, so they were able to win the game on Scott Hatteberg's single in the 12th.
Johnson threw 123 pitches. That seems to border on abuse, but he's older than I thought, having passed 29 birthdays already. On the year, he isn't being abused precisely, but he is just inside the top 20 in the PAP rankings, so he's being ridden fairly hard. For a team with nothing to gain this year, I'm surprised he lasted long in this game. This is especially true because of what his stat line tells us: seven innings, five hits, one walk, one strikeout. That he took 123 pitches to do that says he was laboring with some long counts all night.
Except for Erubiel Durazo's horrific 0-5 with four strikeouts, nobody really had a terrible night. Lots of 1-4's and 1-5's up and down the lineup, with two unintentional walks thrown in for good measure. Terrence Long's double actually set up the winning run. Long moved to third on a throwing error by Tim Raines, Jr., on the play, setting up Mike Hargrove's call for the next two hitters to be intentionally walked. I've read, and I tend to believe, that this almost never works. It's a desperation move, and it didn't work this time, either, as Hatteberg, pinch-hitting for Eric Byrnes, hit a single to end it.
Obviously, the pitching carried the day. As has been usual the past week or so, it was the bullpen, not the vaunted starting rotation, that did the real work and won the game for Oakland. Rich Harden only allowed three hits in five innings, and he struck out five Orioles, but terrible control (just 55 strikes in 102 pitches) led to six walks and a high pitch count. That he got out of runners-on jams is a good thing, clearly, but it'd have been better had the jams never started in the first place. His last few games, he's had the excuse of facing high-octane offenses, but he doesn't have that excuse here. There's no real reason to pitch around guys like Brian Roberts and B.J. Surhoff. I think the starters all have to be on to get the A's to the playoffs, especially when the AL West part of the schedule comes around.
The bullpen deserves accolades again, as they threw seven scoreless innings, allowing just six baserunners. Chad Bradford gave up two hits, Mike Wood walked a batter, and Bradford, Chad Harville, and Wood each hit Orioles with pitches. Harville's two innings resulted in four strikeouts as he continued to prove his worth and audition for a spot in next year's (sure to be revamped again; that's the nature of the forward-thinking team's bullpen these days) 'pen. Wood even managed to pick up his second major league victory by being the most recent A's pitcher to trot out to the hill when Hatteberg won the game.
Finally, in the This-Must-Be-A-Misprint department, Keith Foulke's two perfect innings required him to throw just 12 pitches. There's something almost perverse in the way Foulke conserves his pitches. How many batters must walk up to face him going, "He gets a lot of easy outs early in the count, so I'm going to try to work things a little bit," then 15 seconds later find themselves walking back to the dugout after a 4-3 ground ball going, "What the ----!" Foulke's tenth was a one-pitch 6-3, a four pitch K, and a one-pitch F4. The eleventh was a three-pitch F7 (in foul territory), a two-pitch F6, and a one-pitch F8. That's ridiculous. Granted it's guys like Brook Fordyce and Deivi Cruz, but they're still closer to major league hitters than the water buffalo Foulke makes them look like. The A's haven't held on to their highly-paid closers the past two years, but I think that's largely a function of their being overvalued, and the A's getting better value out of the draft picks (from Jason Isringhausen) and the players they received in trade (for Billy Koch). Keith Foulke is highly paid, and he could potentially become very highly paid after this year, since I think he's a free agent, but I'm hoping that he's undervalued on the open market for (a) not having a truly gaudy save total and (b) not being a flamethrower or big-time intimidator in the classical closer mold. Foulke's actually had a pretty incredible run since about July 9th or so (arbitrary cutoff, I know), going (by my count) 24 1/3 innings while giving up eight hits, six walks (three in one game), two runs (each on solo homers), and striking out 25 batters. I'll grant you that this is essentially what Eric Gagne has been doing all year long, but Foulke's performance record all year long is outstanding. In fact, with similar usage patterns, Foulke ranks just 1.1 ARP behind Gagne on the season, which places him seventh in the majors. You have to wonder whether Foulke would get the love that Gagne and John Smoltz do if he were in a league with no good starting pitchers like they are. The AL has no end of good Cy Young candidates among their starters, however, so there's no real love for the relievers, including fellow AL West studs Brendan Donnelly and Shiggy Hasegawa.
Unfortunately, there are some smart clubs out there these days, and some of them have money. Foulke would fit very well in the bullpen that Boston is building, able to go multi-inning outings and lacking any real weaknesses against any particular type of batter. I wouldn't be surprised to see them sign him this off-season, outbidding the A's in the process, who would surely love to retain his services for a couple more years if they could.