Baseball is a funny game. The best laid plans are often thrown out the window over a 162-game schedule and the team best equipped to handle change is the one that comes out on top.
The 2018 Oakland Athletics have proven to be about as adaptable as they come. As they plow through the final quarter of the season, they are unexpectedly in the middle of the playoff chase. At 76-50, they come into Wednesday series finale with the Rangers tied for first place in the West.
You could call it smoke and mirrors, but that would be doing a disservice to the club that has the best record in baseball over the last 56 games at 42-14. It’s a gritty group that lives and dies by a “next man up” mentality.
The offense has played well, but the real surprise has come from the A’s pitching staff. 13 starting pitchers have taken the hill. 18 relievers have come into games. It’s been a merry-go-round of opportunity, of revelation, of failures and successes.
Through it all, veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy has sat behind the dish and helped stabilize an otherwise chaotic situation.
“It’s nice having a guy like that, who wants to take charge, that wants to be a leader and a guy you totally trust,” starter Sean Manaea told NBC Sports California. “He’s been instrumental on this team...he’s been amazing.”
The nine-year MLB vet wasn’t in A’s plans coming into spring training. They didn’t ink him to a deal until March 12, just two weeks before the season began and even then, it was with the idea that he was coming in to help shape a very young staff.
“He’s that veteran guy, that’s usually for the younger guys is more instrumental, but obviously for the veteran guys too,” manager Bob Melvin said following Monday’s win over the Rangers.
Much like everything else this season for the A’s, the unexpected happened. Young pitchers began dropping like flies. The name Tommy John became synonymous with a staff as Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk went under the knife the week before the season started.
Opening day starter, Kendall Graveman struggled out of the gate and by July, he met the same fate - the dreaded ulnar collateral ligament replacement. By late July, Daniel Gossett had an appointment with the surgeon and veteran Andrew Triggs hasn’t pitched since May 17 due to a tricep strain.
Only Manaea remains from the five-man rotation that opened the season. The A’s are making it work with late veteran additions Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson, as well as Mike Fiers, who was acquired two weeks ago via trade.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every shot whenever you get it and the guys here have,” Lucroy told NBC Sports California. “In this game, results are what matter.”
Since July 30th, the A’s starters have a sparking 1.87 ERA. They are now 11-2 over their last 19 games and have yielded two runs or fewer 16 times over that stretch.
The bullpen has undergone a similar transformation with new faces arriving non-stop throughout the season. Regardless of who takes the ball, they are nearly spotless in late inning situations, including jaw-dropping stats like a 53-0 record when leading at the end of the seventh inning, and a perfect 62-0 when leading through the eighth.
It’s an eclectic group of pitchers that cover the entire spectrum. - young players with promise, veterans that have been around the block and even a few castoffs looking for redemption.
“It has been kind of cobbled together, obviously, with all the turnover we’ve had, but it’s worked for us,” Lucroy said. “Guys have gotten the job done when given the opportunity.”
The 2017 season prepared Lucroy for the changes of this season. The 32-year-old backstop was dealt from the Rangers to the Rockies mid-season, where he had to learn an entirely new staff on the fly.
“I’ve been traded twice in the last two years and I’ve had to deal with new pitching staffs and had to learn them in the span of days,” Lucroy said. “Having a bunch of pitchers come in here and different guys that we’ve had to kind of throw in there to get the job done, it hasn’t been that much of a challenge for me.”
Quietly, the A’s pitching staff has transformed into a massive strength for the ball club. A series of moves around the trade deadline added former closers Jeurys Familia and Fernando Rodney, as well as veteran reliever Shawn Kelley.
It’s one of the deepest bullpens in the league, filled with top end talent. As each member was added, Lucroy and reserve catcher Josh Phegley have had plenty of homework.
“I’ve caught a lot of different guys in my career and every pitcher is different,” Lucroy said. “There’s different personalities, just different in every way.”
The ace of the bullpen is closer Blake Treinen, who at age 30, has transformed into one of the best late game pitchers in the league this season. The first-time All-Star boasts a 6-2 record with 32 saves and a league-best .87 earned run average and some of the credit goes towards the man behind the plate.
“He’s taken the time to learn each pitcher and understand what they throw and where to throw it, I think that’s been huge and it just speaks to his professionalism and his preparation,” Treinen said of Lucroy.
Lucroy has plenty of experience catching high end closers. During his career, he’s had the opportunity to work with some of the game’s greats, including Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman and six-time All-Star Francisco Rodriguez.
“I try to use a lot of that experience I have with them, I try to use it with Blake, applying it to him,” Lucroy said. “It’s just trying to figure out what works best with those guys, trying to get them on the same page.”
It’s not Lucroy’s way or the highway. The veteran catchers works with each pitcher to find a balance. His mentorship has led the A’s to staff to a 3.75 team ERA, which is top 10 in the majors.
“He’s worked with me and been very diligent on how I need to approach certain guys and what strengths to stick with,” Treinen said. “He’s also let me try to make some points too about what I feel like has been successful for me as well. He’s open, he listens and I think there’s a mutual respect in a sense that we can both bring something to the table.”
Lucroy is on a one-year, $6.5 million deal with the A’s. He doesn’t know what his future holds with the club, but he’s enjoyed his first season in green and gold.
“It’s fun, it’s easy to play here,” Lucroy said when asked if this would be a place he’d like to stay for a while. “They do a great job from the top on down. For me, it’s really easy to play here, that’s one thing. I’ve been in places before when it wasn’t easy to play and here it is.”
Oakland has a young catching prospect in Sean Murphy making his way through the pipeline, but a broken hamate bone in his right hand may cost him the rest of the season in the minors. With Murphy missing out on the opportunity to play above Double-A this year, the A’s might be in the market for a catcher again next season. Lucroy has proven he’s more than worthy of the job.