Athletics

A's lineup: Rajai roams in center field in first game of the second half

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USATSI

A's lineup: Rajai roams in center field in first game of the second half

The A's open up the second half of the 2017 season in front of their home fans looking for a win in Oakland.

Cleveland Indians (47-40)

1. Bradley Zimmer (L) CF
2. Francisco Lindor (S) SS
3. Michael Brantley (L) LF
4. Edwin Encarnacion (R) DH
5. Jose Ramirez (S) 3B
6. Carlos Santana (S) 1B
7. Yan Gomes (R) C
8. Tyler Naquin (L) RF
9. Erik Gonzalez (R) 2B
Carlos Carrasco -- RHP

Oakland A's (39-50)

1. Matt Joyce (L) RF
2. Marcus Semien (R) SS
3. Yonder Alonso (L) 1B
4. Khris Davis (R) LF
5. Jed Lowrie (S) 2B
6. Ryon Healy (R) DH
7. Bruce Maxwell (L) C
8. Matt Chapman (R) 3B
9. Rajai Davis (R) CF
Sonny Gray -- RHP

A's three keys to beating Astros in pivotal AL West weekend series

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USATSI

A's three keys to beating Astros in pivotal AL West weekend series

It's only August, but this has the feeling of a playoff series: The defending World Series champion Houston Astros come to town just two games ahead of the red-hot Athletics in the American League West.

An A's sweep would put them in sole possession of first place for the first time all season. On the other hand, an Astros sweep would give them some breathing room at the top.

Here are three keys for the A's to take this weekend's pivotal series at the Coliseum.

1. Continued success from the starting rotation

Remember when the A's starting pitching was supposed to be a major weakness? Well, Oakland's starters have gone 8-1 with a 1.84 ERA in the last 14 games.

Now there's no way the A's will be able to keep up that type of pace, but each starter's goal this weekend should be six or more innings, allowing two runs or fewer. At that point, it's up to the offense to provide run support, and the bullpen to shut it down in the late innings. That's been the A's recipe for success the last two months, and there's no reason to believe that will change.

With Astros outfielder George Springer expected to come off the DL on Friday, and reigning AL MVP José Altuve also close to returning, Oakland's starters will have to be at their best.

2. Situational hitting

The A's certainly don't lack power, but at times, they struggle to have productive at-bats. Take Wednesday's 2-0 extra inning loss to the Mariners as an example. In the fourth inning, the A's put runners on the corners with nobody out, but they failed to score.

The A's tend to rely on the long ball to score runs, and that usually serves them well. But against an elite team like the Astros, where the margin for error will be razor thin, the A's must find a way to cash in on their opportunities. Driving in runners from third with less than two outs will be crucial. Those are the types of at-bats that can take an already stellar lineup to the next level.

3. Stay in the moment

It's fine for fans, and even the media, to get overly worked up about this series. It's what we do. But for the players, especially the younger ones, it will be important to manage emotions.

Of course, there will be some added energy from the atmosphere and national spotlight, but too much adrenaline can be a detriment. The A's have played loose all season long. They genuinely have fun playing together, which has been one of the major reasons for their success. Manager Bob Melvin has done a tremendous job keeping his team focused and level-headed, especially through this incredible 50-game stretch. There's no reason to believe that mentality won't continue this weekend.

Series schedule

Friday: Edwin Jackson (4-2, 2.48) vs. Charlie Morton (12-3, 2.88), 7:05 p.m.

--- Khris Davis career vs. Morton: 3-12, 2 HR
--- Marwin González career vs. Jackson: 3-7, HR, 2B

Saturday: Trevor Cahill (4-2, 3.39) vs. Dallas Keuchel (9-9, 3.43), 1:05 p.m.

--- Matt Chapman career vs. Keuchel: 4-9, 2 HR, 2 2B
--- Yuli Gurriel career vs. Cahill: 3-6, HR, 2B

Sunday: Sean Manaea (11-8, 3.44) vs. Justin Verlander (11-8, 2.52), 1:05 p.m.

--- Khris Davis career vs. Verlander: 3-8, 2 HR, 2B
--- Alex Bregman career vs. Manaea: 4-17, 3 HR

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Sean Manaea walked into the Oakland Athletics locker room carrying a FedEx box Monday evening. The A’s starting pitcher was all smiles as he removed a nerf basketball hoop from the package and hung it above his locker. 

Khris Davis and Matt Olson instantly jumped in on the action, shooting low line drives from around the room to avoid the duct work overhead. 

It was a dream atmosphere. The young A’s were loose coming into their all-important three-game stretch with the Seattle Mariners. The fact that Seattle was nipping at their heels in the standings was palpable once the team hit the diamond, but in their own space, the feel was relaxed and fun. 

The current version of the A's is working. It’s a well-oiled machine that continues to win at a startling pace. They took two out of three from the Mariners to improve to 72-49 on the season. Following a day off on Thursday, they’ll host the first-place Houston Astros Friday evening at the Coliseum with an opportunity to reel in the reigning champs. 

There is plenty to like about the club. Davis hits monster home runs. Jed Lowrie is the seasoned vet having a career year. The patchwork starting rotation continues to compete and Oakland’s bullpen is likely the best in baseball. 

It’s a versatile roster that allows manager Bob Melvin to mix and match his lineups every game. They hit, pitch and play defense. 

The A’s also have a star. 

Matt Chapman is earning his way into the upper echelon of MLB players, and he’s doing it with his glove first. His diving stop in the series opener saved a run. In game two, he sprawled out on the rolled up tarp to snare a ball, a la Josh Donaldson.

“I just want the ball hit to me and I want to make every play that is near me and I just try to go for every ball and just kind of leave it out there,” Chapman told reporters following Monday’s win. 

You can see it in his eyes. This isn’t lip service. The 25-year-old third baseman plays with the intensity that you would expect from a more seasoned player. He literally wants every ball hit his way. 

There are times when he goes too far. He’s stepped in front of shortstop Marcus Semien multiple times this season, gunning down runners on the move as he approaches the second base bag. 

Chapman is not selfish. He wants to win. He wants to make a play and get onto the next hitter. 

“He takes pride in it,” third base coach Matt Williams told NBC Sports California. “He’s certainly dynamic and athletic, but I think the biggest thing for me is his work ethic. He genuinely loves to make a great play. All of those things combined make him an elite guy at the position.”

Williams knows a few things about manning the hot corner. He spent 17 seasons in the league, winning four gold gloves at third base. The five-time All-Star sees a bright future for Chapman, but continues to preach one thing to his young prodigy. 

“I think he’ll get better. I think there’s a lot for him to learn. Certainly, I think he can learn some patience,” Williams said. “He’s so aggressive by nature that sometimes it gets him in a bad position. He’s able to make up for it with his hand-eye coordination.”

When asked about Williams’ critique, Chapman agreed. His passion for playing sometimes gets him in a tough spot. 

“I have a good base right now, I feel like I’m confident, but there’s always room to work,” Chapman said. “(Williams is) right, the last error I made against the Angels, was me rushing to the baseball. I feel like sometimes I want the ball so much I get like, a little antsy and I try to go get everything when I have time.”

That was evident in the A’s loss to Seattle on Wednesday. Chapman scooped a ball and then airmailed all 6-foot-5 of Olson at first base. The error was his 14th of the season.

The A’s coaching staff will live with the occasional gaff from Chapman. His defensive WAR (wins against replacement) ranks first in the entire league at 2.9. He’s top 10 in overall WAR, in large part due to his work with the glove.

At the dish, Chapman has steadily improved over the season. He’s made a habit out of hustling out of the box and he’s not your conventional 3-bagger on the base paths. 

His slash line on the season is .279/.367/.509 with 50 extra base hits, including a career-high 16 home runs, 28 doubles and six triples. He plays the game hard every game and he’s quickly becoming a catalyst for a team pushing for their first playoff appearance since 2014. 

Chapman is starting to put it all together. His development happens to coincide with the A’s becoming one of the best stories in baseball.