Athletics

Why A's stacked lineup hasn't come through in clutch early in season

Why A's stacked lineup hasn't come through in clutch early in season

The A’s lineup is stacked. There’s talent and power from top to bottom, with enough intimidators to keep pitchers on edge. It’s a little too right-handed to be utopian, but the depth keeps the runs coming even while some individuals are struggling.

That’s why the single run tallied in Wednesday’s 5-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies raised a red flag. It wasn’t the lonely run itself that was bothersome. Sometimes a good lineup gets bested by a good pitcher.

It’s the lone run when there were opportunities to score so many more.

“We didn’t do a very good job with runners in scoring position today,” Bob Melvin said after Wednesday’s game. “Unfortunately, that’s the tale of the game. Frankie [Montas] pitched well. Their guy pitched well. The difference was that they got bigger hits that were more timely.”

The A’s were awful in that department over two straight losses to the Rockies. They were 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position and left 35 runners on base in the series.

That’s, well, not great.

It’s so early in the season that a few games can skew numbers, but we’ll present some more than should be viewed within that context. The A’s are 28th in Major League Baseball with a .182 average (6-for-33) with runners in scoring position. Only Robbie Grossman and Matt Chapman have more than one hit in those situations, though Matt Olson’s walk-off grand slam on Opening Day stands as the season’s biggest clutch hit. Outside Olson's big bomb, the A's haven't been good in the clutch. 

Khris Davis’ plight personifies what the A’s have been going through lately and why even small sample sizes are blown up in a short 60-game season. The team’s designated hitter doesn’t have a hit this season, with seven strikeouts in 15 at-bats and left nine runners on base on Tuesday alone.

He got Wednesday off and might have to wait for a favorable matchup before getting back in the fray. The A’s believe Davis can emerge from his early-season slump but can’t afford to be as patient with him as they would in a regular season.

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While the positive momentum from winning a four-game series against the Los Angeles Angels may have been slowed by two losses to the Rockies, the A’s haven’t fallen off the pace through six games that now represent 10 percent of the season. They’re sitting at 3-3 atop the AL West tied with Houston, with a great opportunity to make the postseason by finishing first or second in the division.

The A’s must be better at finding timely hits with runners on, but they can’t press after a few games. That’s what got Davis in some trouble and leads to a unique byproduct of a 60-game season. When every game is magnified, failure inherent to the sport hurts more. Bringing up numbers after six games is also abnormal and would not constitute a trend. It matters now because the A’s can’t afford to take significant time to rectify their issues with runners on.

[RELATED: Why Luzardo believes he's ready to join A's rotation]

Improving results quickly without stressing out over them is a major challenge for the A’s coaching staff. Players must stick to the process even in an intensified season.

“Everybody knows that it’s a shorter season and everybody wants to jump out and have success right now,” A’s hitting coach Darren Bush said. “It’s something that we have to monitor and make them understand that we have to think big picture. It’s about winning games. Just like with 162 games, in a 60-game season we have to stick to the process. It’s very hard to speed it up.”

How softball player Paige Halstead fared vs. Frankie Montas in live BP

How softball player Paige Halstead fared vs. Frankie Montas in live BP

A’s starter Frankie Montas was an absolute workhorse during the MLB hiatus. He lifted a considerable amount of weight, threw bullpens and simulated games. He also had to face Paige Halstead for a batting practice session.

Halstead, whose brother Ryan plays in the Giants organization, is used to male competition. She practices with Ryan quite a bit, but her résumé isn’t something to be ignored. 

A 2019 graduate of UCLA, and workhorse herself, Halstead also was a member of Team USA for three summers where she medaled multiple times. She also will be competing in a newly formed professional softball league, Athletes Unlimited, that begins later in August. 

Halstead had never seen Montas throw before. She had seen Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer previously, who also was throwing batting practice to her in the Arizona desert, but Montas was different.

“Honestly, I didn’t know much about him,” Halstead said on an episode of Momentum’s ‘Cork’d Up’ podcast. “I didn’t even know how hard he could throw.”

“I was waiting to hit off of him, one of the hitters there was like, ‘Dude, you know he throws like 100, right?’ I was like ‘What?’ ” Paige laughed. “I had no idea, I think, knowing that, going up there, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m just going to swing as hard as I can.’ ”

Sometimes, that’s all you can do. 

During the hiatus, Montas also was throwing those triple digits to a high school kid. He used every outlet he could find to stay active. Whatever he was doing worked, as he got the Opening Day nod and continues to dominate on the mound.

In three games this season, Montas boasts a 2.25 ERA with 22 strikeouts in 23 innings. The velocity on his fastball hasn’t quite hit that 100 mark yet, but that will come with time. 

[RELATED: Montas goes from "dark place" to A's Opening Day starter]

“The first pitch [Montas] threw, I blinked, and it was gone,” Halstead said. “He throws gas, but I just try to close my eyes and swing as hard as I can.”

“He was super nice about it,” Halstead said. “He likes to talk trash too, so that was fun.”

How Tony Kemp has become everything A’s hoped for when he was acquired

How Tony Kemp has become everything A’s hoped for when he was acquired

The second base position was a big question mark for the A's heading into the 2020 MLB season.

Prior to spring training, the team’s main need was a lefty infield bat, particularly to platoon with Franklin Barreto who, if he figures it out at the major-league level, could be a game-changer for an entire lineup.

But Barreto hasn't gotten much of a chance this season, not with Tony Kemp around. He changed everything. Through two-plus weeks of the season, it appears those second base questions have been answered.

On Saturday, Chad Pinder got the start at second just as he did on Opening Day, but Kemp has done a sensational job of filling in when needed, and not just as a runner on second base when the A’s find themselves in extras innings -- which has been the case lately.

In 10 games this season, Kemp is slashing .316/.500/.316 with two stolen bases, and that on-base percentage is boosted by a 25.9 percent walk rate. Not to mention, in the month of August alone, he’s gone 6-for-12 with a 1.147 OPS and is batting .500.

“Tony’s playing very well too, so we’re comfortable with both of those guys,” A's manager Bob Melvin told reporters after Saturday’s 3-1 victory over the Houston Astros.

Before the season, Kemp was one of a many options vying for time at second base for the A’s, and now he's splitting time with Pinder.

Even with prospect Jorge Mateo traded to the San Diego Padres, it looked to be a difficult decision to make with Kemp being thrown into the mix with Barreto and Rule 5 addition Vimael Machin also there.

But Melvin hasn’t forgotten about them.

“Barreto and Machin are the guys that aren’t getting a ton of at-bats right now, but at some point in time, they’re going to be called upon whether it’s injury, whether it’s days off, and they’re both working hard to stay ready,” Melvin said.

Beyond the production at the plate, Kemp has blended in beautifully with the team as a whole.

[RELATED: Marcus Semien's hard work sets tone, culture for A's]

Only with the A's for a brief period of time, Kemp noticed the A’s wanted to learn about the “+1 Effect” campaign he launched, and his fun, playful personality lines up perfectly with the tone the team has always set. The productivity is an added bonus.

 “At this point in time, we like how we’re doing it with Tony and Chad,” Melvin added. “They’re both contributing to wins on both sides.”