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.