Athletics

A's: midseason report card

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A's: midseason report card

Baby-faced rookies exceeding expectations, unlikely surges of power striking the opposition, an unknown first baseman-turned-pitcher punching out the side, whipped cream pies, Gatorade showers, and a calculating manager manipulating all of the puzzle pieces.

Surprise! The A's are 43-43 at the All-Star break and just 2 games out of the second American League Wild Card spot. For once people are talking about the team on the field, and not the seemingly endless waffling of Major League Baseball's commissioner in regards to the A's future.

For the first time since 2008 the As have a .500 record at the All-Star break. Could they possibly pull off a playoff run that no one saw coming?

ROTATION: A
The A's starting pitchers have a 3.67 ERA, which is the lowest in the American League. It's shocking stat when you consider the offseason upheaval that sent All-Stars Gio Gonzalez, and Trevor Cahill packing and A's fans into a state of clinical depression. Instead of a season of sorrows, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and even Bartolo Colon have anchored a starting rotation that's allowed two earned runs or fewer in 20 of the last 23 games. Not even the vaunted A's rotations anchored by the Big Three of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder pulled that off. They've done it with both of their most experienced starters spending time on the DL. Opening day starter Brandon McCarthy's shoulder remains a major question mark, and Colon has spent time on the DL as well. Oh, and arguably the A's most talented pitcher Brett Anderson is about to start a rehab assignment. The A's have more arms than a paranoid dictator.

BULLPEN: A-
The A's gave the ninth inning to the "Mad Aussie" who in turn ended up enraging A's fans. Then to Brian Fuentes, who whipped fans into even more of a lather. When the smoke had cleared from the charred remains of the A's ninth inning explosions, they found a man who could handle the heat -- Ryan Cook. The rookie became the A's closer and has been serving saves since. Cook pitched so well that he became just the seventh rookie in Oakland history to be named to the All-Star team. With a closer in place, the A's bullpen has been lights out. It ranks second-best in the AL with a 2.88 ERA, and the unit's .204 opponent batting average is the lowest in the AL. The 'pen has also allowed an AL-low 17 home runs. Despite losing the closer's role, Grant Balfour has been worth every penny, and the emergence of first baseman-turned-pitcher Sean Doolittle has been arguably the best story in baseball. Doolittle has 24 strikeouts in 14.2 innings pitched.

DEFENSE: C
The A's had an AL-worst 124 errors last season and manager Bob Melvin made the defense priority No. 1 in the offseason. The A's have looked better in 2012. Not only does Josh Reddick have a howitzer for an arm in right field, he has the reckless abandon to make hit-stealing catches. Coco Crisp lacks a decent throwing arm, but his speed plays better now that he is back in center field. Yoenis Cespedes still has to learn how to play left field, and when he's been injured, Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes have played pretty well there. As far as the infield is concerned, the platoon of Brandon Moss and Chris Carter at first is a little below average defensively. Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington are solid up the middle. The acquisition of veteran Brandon Inge also solidified third base. Still, the A's make far too many mistakes in pressure situations against big opponents.

LINEUP: C
If the A's weren't blasting baseballs into orbit their grade would suffer more. A's hitters ended the first half by hitting 22 home runs in their last 18 games. The A's 83 long balls are the most they have hit before the All-Star break since 2007, when they had 91. Reddick has already collected 20 home runs. The last A's player to hit 20 before the All-Star break was Nick Swisher in 2006. Here's a "Moneyball" stat for you -- based on Reddick's 485,000 salary, he is second in MLB in cost-per-home run, with the A's paying him 24,250 for each homer hit. Cleanup hitter Cespedes has shown flashes of superstardom but durability has been an issue. Moss has 10 homers in 26 games played. His platoon-mate at first base Chris Carter has three in six games but Oakland is last in the AL in runs scored (319), average (.225), total bases (1047), and second-worst in on-base percentage (.291) and slugging percentage (.365). There's plenty of room for improvement.
BENCH: B
It seems Melvin can do no wrong in this department. Against the Mariners on July 6, Carter became the first rookie in A's history to hit a pinch hit walk-off home run. Oakland now hasa bench that pushes the starters for playing time. Oakland has platoon options at first base, left field, and shortstop. The A's also appear to have two MLB-caliber catchers. Jonny Gomes has a pinch hit home run and is batting .286 with runners in scoring position, and Brandon Hicks is 2-for-2 with two doubles as a pinch-hitter.

MANAGERFRONT OFFICE: A
This offseason Billy Beane may have pulled off his greatest feat since getting Hollywood executives to cast Brad Pitt to play him in a major motion picture. One can only imagine the Oscar-worthy performances Beane must have put on with rival GMs during the acquisitions of Reddick, Milone, Parker and Smith via trade. Combine that with the coup de gras of signing Cespedes -- which shocked even the most dialed-in experts in the baseball landscape -- and the first half has silenced the Beane doubters. Not to go unnoticed, the sneaky yet effective addition of Colon, the former Cy Young Award winner. What looked like an offseason fire sale actually stocked the shelves with new toys for Melvin to tinker with. Beane and Melvin have made all the right moves. Melvin has even managed to make Beane's one mistake this offseason -- signing Coco Crisp to a two-year deal -- look like a smart move. Beane has transformed his reputation for treating his manager as a meaningless puppet by turning the reins over to Melvin. The difference is staggering.

Astros win two straight vs Yankees, advance to take on Dodgers in World Series

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USATSI

Astros win two straight vs Yankees, advance to take on Dodgers in World Series

BOX SCORE

HOUSTON -- Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers combined on a three-hitter, Jose Altuve and Evan Gattis homered and the Houston Astros reached the World Series, blanking the New York Yankees 4-0 Saturday night in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.

Just four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees for two straight games after dropping three in a row in the Bronx.

Next up for the Astros: Game 1 of the World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday night. Los Angeles opened as a narrow favorite, but Houston aces Dallas Keuchel and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander will have plenty of rest before the matchup begins at Dodger Stadium.

Houston has never won even a single World Series game. The only previous time the Astros made it this far, they were a National League team when they were swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005.

Now, manager A.J. Hinch's club has a chance to win that elusive first title, while trying to boost a region still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

Houston improved to 6-0 at Minute Maid Park in these playoffs and became the fifth team in major league history to win a seven-game postseason series by winning all four of its home games.

Morton bounced back from a loss in Game 3 to allow two hits over five scoreless innings. Starter-turned-postseason reliever McCullers limited the Yankees to just one hit while fanning six over the next four.

Combined, they throttled the wild-card Yankees one last time in Houston. Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and their New York teammates totaled just three runs in the four road games.

CC Sabathia entered the game 10-0 with a 1.69 ERA in 13 starts this season after a Yankees loss. But he struggled with command and was gone with one out in the fourth inning.

Houston was up 2-0 in fifth when former Yankees star Brian McCann came through for the second straight game by hitting a two-run double after snapping an 0-for-20 skid with an ground-rule RBI double to give Houston its first run on Friday night.

The Yankees, trying to reach the World Series for the first time since 2009, lost an elimination game for the first time this season after winning their first four in these playoffs. New York struggled on the road this postseason, with this loss dropping the team to 1-6.

After going 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position through the first three innings, the Astros got on the board with no outs in the fourth with the 405-foot shot by Gattis off Sabathia which made it 1-0.

Altuve launched a ball off Tommy Kahnle into the seats in right field with one out in the fifth for his fifth homer this postseason. It took a while for him to see that it was going to get out, and held onto his bat until he was halfway to first base before flipping it and trotting around the bases as chants of "MVP" rained down on him.

Altuve finished 8 for 25 with two homers and four RBIs in the ALCS after hitting .533 with three homers and four RBIs in the ALDS against Boston.

Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel hit consecutive singles after that before Kahnle struck out Gattis. McCann's two-strike double, which rolled into the corner of right field, cleared the bases to push the lead to 4-0. Gurriel slid to avoid the tag and remained on his belly in a swimming pose at the plate for a few seconds after he was called safe.

It was just the second Game 7 in franchise history for the Astros, who dropped Game 7 to the Cardinals in the 2004 NLCS 13 years ago today.

Sabathia allowed five hits and one run while walking three in 3 1/3 innings. He wasn't nearly as sharp as he was in a Game 3 win and just 36 of the 65 pitches he threw were strikes.

Morton got into trouble in the fifth, and the Yankees had runners at the corners with one out. Bregman fielded a grounder hit by Todd Frazier and made a perfect throw home to allow McCann to tag Greg Bird and preserve Houston's lead. McCann held onto the ball despite Bird's cleat banging into his forearm. Chase Headley grounded out after that to end the inning.

A night after Springer kept Frazier from extra-bases with a leaping catch, Judge returned the favor on a ball hit by Yuli Gurriel. Judge sprinted, jumped and reached into the stands to grab his long fly ball before crashing into the wall and falling to the ground for the first out of the second inning.

Springer had another nifty catch in this one, jumping in front of Marwin Gonzalez at the wall in left-center to grab a ball hit by Bird for the first out of the seventh inning.

Mailbag: Will A's go after Bay Area native CC Sabathia?

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AP

Mailbag: Will A's go after Bay Area native CC Sabathia?

As the postseason continues to unfold, it’s fair game to speculate on what might be in store for the A’s looking ahead to next year. Here’s some questions that came in via Twitter, with my thoughts attached …

@usernamaxwell -- What do you think the 2018 rotation will look like?

Talk about wide open. You can safely write in Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea. I’ll put Paul Blackburn in there based on his impressive showing before suffering a season-ending hand injury. Daniel Mengden has an inside track based on his strong September. But for both Blackburn and Mengden, the sample size of success is so small. For others, like Jharel Cotton and Daniel Gossett, they struggled during an extended opportunity in this season’s rotation. That’s why I expect the A’s to sign a free agent starter. It likely won’t be a front-of-the-rotation guy. But something tells me one of those five spots will be filled by someone not currently in the organization. As for in-house guys, everything is written in pencil for me beyond Graveman and Manaea.

@sanomafang -- Who do you see starting at CF next season?

Unfortunately there’s no crystal ball that tells us whether Dustin Fowler’s right knee will be full strength by the start of spring training. If he’s fully recovered from surgery for a ruptured patella tendon, it appears his job to lose. That’s saying a lot for a guy that’s played just one big league game. But the 22-year-old Fowler, acquired from the Yankees in the Sonny Gray deal, is a very highly regarded prospect. A’s officials have made it clear they see him as the likely starter in center if he’s 100 percent. But there’s bound to be rust to knock off. Boog Powell remains very much in the equation here. Bottom line, I see the A’s choosing their center fielder from in-house as opposed to acquiring someone.

@jackconboy -- Who do you think will get a long-term contract and would they give one to pre-arb players?

Although the A’s could target a veteran – reportedly they’ve held past talks with Khris Davis and Marcus Semien about extensions – I tend to think it’s the younger guys they would focus on locking up. Yes, I do think they would consider multi-year deals for pre-arbitration players. The question is when. I think they want to give it a little time to evaluate just who they should sink their money into. Any number of players could be targets. Trying to forecast right now, I think Matt Chapman and Matt Olson would make sense to sign as power hitters who play impact defense at the corner infield spots. These look like anchor-type guys to me. But Ryon Healy, Chad Pinder, Bruce Maxwell, Sean Manaea and others could warrant consideration too.

@OaklandABooster -- Any chance the A’s might bid on CC Sabathia in the offseason?

I’ve heard people speculating on this one. The A’s could use a seasoned veteran in their rotation. And given Sabathia is a Vallejo native, finishing his career in the Bay Area could be the perfect ending for the 37-year-old. So it makes some sense on the surface. But being that he pitched to a 3.69 ERA and 14 wins over 148 2/3 innings with the Yankees this season, expect there to be plenty of competition for his services on the open market. As usual, it will come down to dollars. But I could see the A’s making a play for him.

@dongodile -- What's gonna happen to Chris bassitt -- bullpen or rotation?

I’m pretty curious about this myself because there’s a fit for him somewhere on this staff if healthy. Bob Melvin said, in his season-ending media chat, that Bassitt could pitch in relief next season simply because he logged just 50 2/3 innings in 2017 after returning from Tommy John surgery. He feels comfortable relieving, and let’s face it, this bullpen needs reinforcements. He’s a wild card worth watching in spring training.

@mrjoesiler -- What do you see for the DH position in 2018?

I think this one’s on a lot of people’s minds. Things could very well remain status quo. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson appear locked in at the corner infield spots, and with Khris Davis manning left field, Healy would remain the DH. There’s been speculation that perhaps Healy could be dangled in a trade. I see the logic … moving him means Davis could slide to DH and the A’s could field a stronger defensive outfield that potentially has Matt Joyce in left, whoever wins out in center and Chad Pinder in right. But boy, you have to like the chemistry that’s developing with this young nucleus, and Healy is a part of that. Do you want to subtract a piece from that at this early juncture? Being that the A’s have stuck with Davis in left field for two seasons now despite his subpar throwing arm, I could see them staying the course in 2018 and Healy remaining the DH.

@J_M_C_74 -- With the recent trade acquisitions of SSs Jorge Mateo and Sheldon Neuse, does Marcus Semien become a trade candidate in the next 1 -2 years?

First thing’s first – the A’s have to be convinced they’ve got a better shortstop who’s ready before they would even consider dealing Semien. Both prospects you mention made a nice early impression, but it’s too early to tell if either will be playing shortstop in the bigs. Mateo is a terrific athlete but he could also be a center field option. From what I’m told, Neuse has adequate tools for short but is probably best suited for third base. I’ve long thought Richie Martin, the A’s first-round pick in 2015, would have the glove to eventually take over as the big league shortstop. But Martin’s bat is the concern right now, and he finished the season at Single-A after Mateo was acquired and took over shortstop at Double-A.