Monday, August 19, 2019

Oakland A’s Shake Off Injuries, Buck Odds to join Playoff Hunt

Despite a long list of injuries and an underachieving bullpen, Oakland again is leaning on a few young stars and no-name role players to nab a playoff spot.

By Chris De Benedetti
Mon, Aug 19, 2019 at 2:14 PM

click to enlarge As the 2019 season winds down, the Coliseum will be the site of yet another pennant race.
  • As the 2019 season winds down, the Coliseum will be the site of yet another pennant race.

Buckle up, A’s fans. The final six weeks of the 2019 pennant race is going to be a wild, bumpy ride.

Then again, you wouldn’t have it any other way, would you?

These are intriguing days for Oakland baseball. A.J. Puk, one of the franchise’s most heralded prospects, was called up to the majors for the first time on Monday, bolstering an inconsistent bullpen and giving fans a tantalizing glimpse at the future.

News of the young hurler’s promotion was a jolt of energy for the A’s, which just won a thrilling series from the Houston Astros. The Green and Gold flexed their biceps at the plate and displayed a bottomless well of mettle all weekend, taking three of four games from one of MLB’s best teams. Two of the contests were tense, one-run A’s victories that felt like playoff baseball and must have done wonders to boost the young team’s confidence.

That there is a pennant race at all in which the A’s can compete is something of a miracle. Consider that Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, last year’s stalwart relievers, have struggled mightily this season, while injuries have forced the A’s to play long stretches without Matt Olson, Ramon Laureano, and a few other key contributors. Also, several injuries have marred Khris Davis’ season, sending the powerful slugger into a tailspin at the plate.

Infielder Jurickson Profar also has disappointed with an anemic batting average (.204) and on-base percentage (.269), as well as a throwing “yips” problem that’s turned every ground ball into a scary adventure. Lastly, various ailments have placed five different A’s catchers behind the plate, robbing the pitching staff of some much-needed stability.

If I had known in March that the team would face all of those challenges this summer, my only reply would have been: “Will the A’s lose 100 games or just 95?”

Instead, the squad led by Manager Bob Melvin is right in the thick of the playoff hunt. Even though they were under .500 as late as June 10, they’ve played .667 ball since then to boost their record to a strong 71-53 record. After the dust cleared Sunday night, the A’s were right on the heels of the second wild card spot, with just 38 games left in the season.

In fact, they’re almost matching the pace of last year’s wildly successful campaign, in which the A’s earned 97 wins and a Wild Card Game appearance. Given the growing pile of bad breaks in 2019, how have the A’s stayed in contention?

Well, having some all-star talent helps.

And the A’s clearly have a number of young studs in Olson, Laureano, shortstop Marcus Semien, and All-Star third baseman Matt Chapman. Liam Hendriks has ably filled the closer role that Treinen’s struggles left vacant. Brett Anderson and Chris Bassitt have been unspectacular but effective as part of a patchwork rotation anchored by Mike Fiers, whose 11-3 record includes a May 7 no-hitter.

Some wonderful, albeit head-scratching, success stories have emerged, too. The recent arrival of 30-year-old second baseman Corban Joseph has been an unlikely godsend. Before joining the A’s a week ago, Joseph had just five career hits in a total of 16 major league games dating back to 2013. He matched that offensive output in just five games this past week in Oakland, knocking a homer and two RBIs and claiming the squad’s second-base job for the foreseeable future.

Now Puk, 24, is set to join a pitching staff that on Tuesday will begin a three-game set against the big, bad New York Yankees, possessors of MLB’s best record.

Is it reasonable to lean on inexperienced players like Joseph and Puk right as pennant-race pressure gets red hot? Um … sure, why not?

This is the Oakland A’s we’re talking about. It’s a clubhouse filled mostly with unheralded players who are as fascinating as they are flawed.

With this franchise, the unexpected is the only thing expected. Which might be the only explanation for if the A’s’ long, hot summer transitions into an unforgettable autumn in Oakland.

Chris De Benedetti, a co-founding member of Baseball Oakland, writes a regular sports column for the Express.

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