A's spring training Day 1: Lambo back with A's, happy and healthy

A's spring training Day 1: Lambo back with A's, happy and healthy

MESA, Ariz. — The topic of conversation, at last, can go back to baseball for A’s outfielder Andrew Lambo.

He is back in Oakland’s major league spring camp, trying to turn heads as a non-roster player after already winning a much bigger battle.

Seven months after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Lambo got clearance to resume full baseball activity in December. He underwent surgery to remove a tumor last June and was declared cancer-free a few months later.

One lingering concern, a lymph node in his stomach that was found to be slightly larger than normal, was put to rest after a scan found his lymph nodes all over his body are just a bit bigger than normal, which is the case with some people.

In mid-December, Dr. Leslie Ballas gave him the complete green light. And now the 28-year-old Lambo — one of the chattiest, most outgoing players in any clubhouse he enters — is happy to rediscover the subtle things he missed while being away from the game.

“We all go through journeys and different life experiences,” Lambo said Tuesday, as A’s players underwent their physicals to start spring training. “That’s the one thing about coming back. You also get that wonderful dry sense of humor that we get out here in the baseball world, which is what we miss.

“It’s good to be back around guys that could really care less. People have gone through probably worse surgeries on their bodies than what I did.”

Lambo had a nice spring with Oakland last year but started the season with Triple-A Nashville before getting his cancer diagnosis. He rejoined the A’s in September for a series in Anaheim and got in uniform to take part in pregame drills. Now there’s no restrictions on him, and he’s happy the focus can shift from his health to his game.

“God bless ‘em,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s here, he’s healthy. I know he’s excited. I’m not trying to speak for him, but whenever you go through something like that, that’s bigger than baseball, and whenever you get back to doing what you love to do, there’s a certain amount of passion that goes along with it. And I’m sure that’s there for him.”

BEST SHAPE OF HIS LIFE ALERT: Catcher Josh Phegley looks noticeably trimmer as he tries to rebound from a 2016 season cut short by a right knee injury.

Phegley had surgery to remove a cyst from his knee in July, but then was hospitalized with a case of synovitis (inflammation) in the knee, which also became infected. He never returned to the field in ’16 but is fully cleared for the start of camp, though Melvin said Phegley may be held out of some drills early as a precaution.

Phegley has adjusted his catching stance to where he’s now lined up square with the pitcher. Before, he set up with his right leg behind his left to allow for a quicker throw, but he believes that was putting too much pressure on his right leg.

Carrying less weight should also help. Phegley weighs about 220 right now, 10 to 15 pounds lighter than last season. He’s a big part of the A’s picture if full strength — a right-handed hitter with some pop, not to mention the strongest arm of the A’s primary catchers. Stephen Vogt and Bruce Maxwell both hit left-handed.

“He’s one of the best defensive catchers in baseball, and he crushes lefties,” Vogt said.

NOTEWORTHY: Reliever Santiago Casilla, who signed a two-year $11 million contract in January, likely won’t report for a couple of days as his visa paperwork is finished in the Dominican Republic. A’s pitchers and catchers hit the field for the team’s first workout Wednesday, with the full squad reporting Saturday. Casilla is one of the candidates to be Melvin’s closer.

STOCK RISING: Ok, maybe it’s impossible for a guy’s stock to rise before the A’s even hold an official workout. But Vogt and Phegley both raved about right-hander Jesse Hahn, who has thrown off the mound to both catchers in pre-camp workouts.

“Let’s not forget this guy throws 96, 97 miles per hour with sink, and one of the better curveballs in baseball,” Vogt said. “He could be sneaking up on some people to make this rotation.”

HEALTH UPDATE: Chris Bassitt and Felix Doubront both threw off the mound Tuesday — albeit with the catcher set up in front of the plate — the first time either has done so since undergoing Tommy John surgery early last season. There’s still a long road ahead for both, as neither pitcher is guaranteed to return to the A’s before the All-Star break. But Tuesday was a positive step forward. And Bassitt is using this time of recovery to clean up his mechanics, trying to correct his tendency to fall off to the first-base side with each pitch.

“Obviously my mechanics last year, and honestly for 27 years, were horrendous,” said the 27-year-old Bassitt, who apparently came out of the womb chucking fastballs.

From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season


From 2.9 to 100 percent: Tracking A's playoff chances throughout the season

In the last 30 seasons of Major League Baseball, no team had made the playoffs with the lowest Opening Day payroll in the league.

Until now.

Against all odds, the Oakland A's are heading to the postseason. How on earth did this happen?

FanGraphs has tracked each team's playoff chances throughout the regular season. Oakland opened the season with just a 9.2 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number dipped to a season-low 2.9 percent on April 14, when the A's fell to 5-10. 

Oakland's chances remained below 20 percent through the month of June, dropping to just 3.1 percent on June 15 when they were 34-36 and 11 games out of the second Wild Card position.

But then something happened. Despite numerous injuries to their starting rotation, the A's caught fire. Oakland would win 21 of its next 27 games to reach the All-Star break at 55-42. Suddenly, the A's playoff chances were up to 30.9 percent.

Surely this was just a fluke. There was no way Oakland could maintain this level of play into the second half.

But they did. The A's won nine of their first 13 games out of the break, raising their playoff chances to 51.8 percent on August 2, the first time all season they had crossed the 50 percent barrier.

As August went on, the A's just kept winning. Following a 3-2 victory against the Dodgers on August 8, Oakland's playoff chances reached 70 percent for the first time. On August 21, they climbed above 80 percent. The A's finished August with a record of 81-55 and a 90.9 percent probability of reaching the postseason.

On September 24, that number hit 100 and it became official. For the first time since 2014, the Oakland A's are going to the playoffs.

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

A's have opportunity to build reputation as elite team in MLB playoffs

The A's playoff chase did not end with the traditional cathartic bang, but it came close enough given the circumstances.
Oh, they got in all right. It’s just that their postgame celebration after beating Seattle, 7-3, was a bit muted (wet but controlled is probably the best way to put it) by the fact that the achievement had been achieved in pregame. Tampa Bay finally ended the last shredlet of doubt by expiring at home to the New York Yankees four hours earlier, and the value of the A's winning was mostly to stay on New York’s considerable heels.
That, ultimately, is the only discordant note the A’s have played in the last 100 days – they didn’t get to do the deed themselves.
In fact, they not only didn’t do the deed themselves, they watched the team they’ve been chasing do it for them and stay an arm’s length ahead of the Oaklands for the right to host the wild card game next Wednesday. They still trail New York by the equivalent of two games with five to play, so there is no benefit to kicking back and soaking anything in. The work is done when the work is done, and this work is not yet done.
But it’s damned fine work by any measure.
The Elephants have made themselves the fourth-best team in baseball in half a season by not shrinking before the task thrust upon them, by never letting up as they continued to consume starting pitchers at a rate that should be found in last-place teams, by being the equivalent in those 100 days of a 113-win team.
It therefore becomes impossible to make a compelling case that these are merely plucky overachievers getting hot at the right time. Overachievers don’t do this for 3½ months. They have earned the right to walk with the game’s kings.
Now, they have to prove they can run with them. That’s October’s task.
It’s perfectly acceptable to marvel at the Oakland turnaround, not just from their middling start this year but the three years of uninspiring sub-mediocrity before that. It’s fine to be amazed at the way they chewed through their own starting rotation, in some cases more than once, and still ended up a formidable team. It’s normal to note that they were a mediocre team at home until mid-June, then won three-quarters of their games at the grim Carpathian castle known as the Coliseum.
Why, it’s even acceptable to mock them for their modest home attendance, as though that has anything to do with what the roster did before all those empty seats.
But they earned all of it, and now all that accomplishment looks to get them the rawest deal of all the playoff paths – a game in the Bronx against the more solidly built Yankees, and then if that goes well, a series against the team with the best record this year and one of the 15 best in the game’s history by winning percentage in Boston.
And they’ll be the team people know the least about because, well, because people seek out only that knowledge they want to possess, especially when it comes to baseball. They don’t have a Cy Young or MVP candidate, or even a Rookie of the Year. They have the likely Manager of the Year in Bob Melvin, a potential Mariano Rivera Award winner in Blake Treinen, and two Gold Glove candidates in first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman. They may even have an Executive of the Year in Billy Beane.
But they also have that twitchy postseason history over the past 25 years, in which they have carried teams as strong and solid and in some ways deeper and more complete and still have been left behind by better teams with better players doing better things when the things mattered most. That history may not be this team’s, but this team is wearing the laundry of those other teams, and that’s just how history works.
So the A’s for all their good deeds still have a national reputation to build, and this is that opportunity. Whether it is done in Oakland or New York, Boston or Houston, they are on the verge of becoming a national team again, of being the 2013 Warriors en route to a glory nobody could imagine even now.
Or they could fail, in which case all they’ve done is serve notice that they are badasses in training. That would do as well given their modest origins in spring.
But if they’ve gone to the trouble of becoming this good, they might as well stay and enjoy the décor awhile. The A’s are either going to be the real deal, or they’re going to be close enough to see the landmarks and read the signs that led the way.