Despite being at the bottom of the American League in nearly every offensive category, the Oakland A's find themselves at a respectable 7-7 after winning a four-game series against the struggling Los Angeles Angels. The team returns home Friday to kick off a three-game tilt against the Cleveland Indians, who come in hitting the ball well to start the year.
If the A's had any intention on competing in 2012, they knew they had to play better away from Oakland. The club finished its first road trip of the season by going 4-3 after finishing last year's road schedule 19 games under .500. And, for the first time this season, the A's can feel the momentum of a three-game winning streak.
The Cleveland Indians come into Oakland playing well on the first their first road trip of the season. They came out of series against the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners 5-1 and averaging nearly nine runs a game. Despite being struck out 12 times by Felix Hernandez Thursday, the Tribe came back to beat Seattle, 2-1, to win the three-game set. They'll send out three talented right-handed starters to face the A's, who are the worst-hitting team in the majors out of the gate.
Ubaldo Jimenez (1-0, 4.50 ERA) gets the go in Friday's game one. After a dominant 2010 where he went 19-8, averaging 8.69 strikeouts per nine innings, the flame-throwing righty fell out of favor with the Colorado Rockies while discussing his future with the team. Reportedly, he didn't take kindly the club re-signing shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and outfielder Carlos Gonzalez to lucrative contract extensions, while leaving him high and dry. The club traded him to Cleveland for a package of four prospects at last season's trade deadline.
When the two clubs played this spring, Jimenez' volatility was on display when he drilled Tulowitzki with a fastball and went on to antagonize the shortstop while the benches cleared. Jimenez was suspended five games, causing him to miss his first scheduled start.
Jimenez is a different pitcher now than when he finished third in Cy Young voting in 2010. He's throwing less fastballs and sliders, while throwing more curves and change ups. Not pitching in Coors Field allows throwing to contact rather than the strikeout. That could be good for Jimenez, who hasn't shown the same explosive stuff that missed so many bats while with Colorado.
The A's counter in game one with Graham Godfrey (0-2, 4.09 ERA), who is looking to prove his worth to the major club while Jarrod Parker and Brad Peacock have shown improvement in their command early on at Triple-A Sacramento. Godfrey isn't close to losing his spot in the rotation yet, but could be on the short end of either Parker or Peacock getting the call.
To his credit, Godfrey has yet to allow more than three earned runs and has walked just two hitters in his two starts combined. The Indians pose a sizable power threat, having hit 16 home runs in 10 games, meaning the fly ball pitcher will need to be careful.
Young catcher Carlos Santana has powered Cleveland's lineup that has scored the third-most runs in the American League. The former top prospect has a line of .256/.408/.538 with a 947 OPS and nine driven in. Outfielder Shelley Duncan is also off to a good start, leading his team in on-base percentage .444 with two home runs and six RBIs. The numbers for each player are typical of the team's entire lineup, as the club has shown a propensity to get on base at a good clip despite not hitting for a stellar average.
The A's will send ace Brandon McCarthy (0-2, 3.60 ERA) to the hill Saturday night against right-hander Jeanmar Gomez (0-0, 2.25 ERA). McCarthy is coming off a rough outing in Anaheim where he allowed 11 hits in seven innings, earning his second loss. In his four starts, the right-hander has been oscillating in his consistency as he looks to find a rhythm for the first time this year.
McCarthy, who has prided himself on getting ground balls, allowed 17 fly balls in his last outing after yielding 10 in both his previous two starts. Pitching on his home mound should help, but like Godfrey, he'll want to regain his feel for the lower portion of the strike zone against the Indians power threats.
Gomez is facing a five-game suspension after being ejected for hitting Royals third basemen Mike Moustakas in the second inning of a game last week, but is appealing and throwing Saturday. It was his first start of the season after appearing in two innings of relief April 11. In four innings, the right-hander hasn't allowed a hit and has struck out three.
The three-pitch pitcher features a fastball that averages better than 90 MPH with a hard slider and changeup. He throws his slider more than 20 percent of the time getting a majority of his hitters out with ground balls. He has yet to throw more than 34 pitches in an outing this year, so the A's would be wise to work deep into counts and test his durability. The 24-year-old Venezuelan has bounced between the bigs and minors over the last three years and is looking to solidify himself in the Tribe's young rotation.
Sunday's series finale features a pair of explosive right-handers in Justin Masterson (0-1, 6.48 ERA) and Tyson Ross (0-0, 3.00 ERA). Ross made his season debut on Tuesday in Anaheim after starting the year in Sacramento when the team only needed four starting pitchers. He threw well, allowing two runs in six innings while getting 17 ground balls from the 24 hitters he faced. Ross' fastball averaged better than 92 MPH with his biting slider averaging better than 85.
Masterson is coming off of his best season in the majors in 2011, when he won 12 games and allowed 211 hits in 216 innings with a 3.21 ERA. Masterson is predominately a two-pitch pitcher who throws a fastball and slider from a low-three-quarters arm slot that causes lots of movement on his pitches.
Masterson is coming off a poor outing against the Mariners where he surrendered eight runs in 3.2 innings. The start raised his ERA from 2.77 to where it is now. After a solid season-opening performance against Toronto where he struck out 10 in eight innings, the 27-year-old has combined to allow 15 hits in his last 8.2 frames. When he's right, Masterson can be very hard to hit. Oakland looking to capitalize on his recent struggles, while he sees a lineup that could be the worst he's faced this season.
Headed into Friday, the A's were hitting just .207 as a team. That will have to change if the club looks to sustain any sort of success against the rest of the American League. Winning the series in Anaheim was very positive. But it should be noted the Angels were not playing to form and will probably have a very different face when the two teams meet again in May. By scoring just over three runs a game, the A's have been heavily reliant on their pitching staff to keep them afloat. It's a lot to ask of a young staff to maintain its 2.91 ERA (second in the AL to Texas' 2.38) that doesn't have a ton of experience to fall back on.
Josh Donaldson hasn't reached base in a week and is starting to become a concern both offensively and defensively at third base. He's just 3-for-29 on the year without a walk and has struck out in nearly 40 percent of his at-bats. His approach at the plate isn't changing through his struggles. His swing remains long and his pitch selection poor.
With three right-handed starters going against the A's, it's possibility that Eric Sogard could see three-straight starts at the hot corner in Melvin's lineup. If Sogard plays himself into position to start against all left-handed pitchers, he could force the A's to make a decision about it's roster it will be without a versatile infielder on the bench.
Kila Ka'aihue has made the most of his limited at-bats, hitting .421 with a 924 OPS in six games. His early success has made juggling the lineup more of a difficult task for Melvin, however, because Ka'aihue's glove isn't one Melvin wants at first base every day meaning Daric Barton will still see plenty of time there. That means Ka'aihue is likely to get some more time at designated hitter, where he will compete with Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes for at-bats. Ka'aihue has hit well against both right- and left-handers so far. Don't be surprised if he's in the lineup in each game this weekend.