At 19-18, the Oakland A's have to be happy with the way the first month and a half of 2012 has gone.
But Wednesday, when the team opens up a two-game set in Texas, the team will have an opportunity to legitimize itself against the best team in the division, and maybe the American League.
The Texas Rangers (23-14) have played in the last two World Series. They own the best lineup in baseball. They have the best pitching in the American League. The best player on the planet roams the outfield and mans the middle of their order. Aside from that, the team that plays in Arlington is pretty average.
Josh Hamilton is coming off arguably one of the best weeks in baseball history at the plate. Highlighted by a four-homer performance in Baltimore on May 8, the slugging outfielder hit nine home runs in six games. From May 6 to 13, he drove in 19 runs. But the most astounding part might be his .467/.529/1.433 slash line with a 1963 OPS.
For the A's, Hamilton is only part of the problem. The Rangers' high-voltage lineup has five players with an OPS better than 800. Oakland, by contrast, only has only one (Josh Reddick, 889). Jonny Gomes has an 847 OPS, but hadn't been a regular in the lineup until Yoenis Cespedes hit the 15-day DL on May 7. Gomes has 88 plate appearances to Reddick's 154.
The A's offensive struggles were on display in Tuesday's 4-0 loss to the Angels, during which Ervin Santana retired 16-straight at one point and earned win No. 14 against his AL West rivals for his career.
Oakland remains very reliant on its pitching, which faces its toughest task of the season.
Rookie southpaw Tom Milone (5-2, 3.92) looks to win his third start in a row after a very strong outing on Friday, during which he threw seven innings while allowing one run versus the Tigers. But the Ballpark in Arlington is unkind to pitchers, especially those facing the vaunted Rangers' lineup. Milone has struggled on the road, posting a 7.84 ERA in and 1.55 WHIP in four starts away from the Coliseum. In Oakland, he's been outstanding with a 0.39 ERA and 0.65 WHIP.
Those road numbers aren't good on the surface, but Milone's last road start wasn't as bad as the numbers indicated. He surrendered four runs in the first inning in Tampa, but kept the team in the game by allowing only one more run over the next four. He had his offense to thank for the win, but settling down after a rough first was a sign of maturity in a tough place to pitch.
For Milone to be successful against the Rangers, he'll have to effectively plant cutters in the on the hands of the right-handed hitters and not leave them out over the plate, where he's been hurt this year. He'll be making his first start against Texas, who have the best average in baseball at .293.
Milone will take on Japanese import Yu Darvish (5-1, 2.84) who is likely the leading candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors. He's off to a great start and is the first pitcher in team history to earn five wins in his first seven starts. But he's evened out a little during his last two starts, allowing six earned runs in 11.1 innings. In his previous 27.1, he allowed just three runs.
Darvish has a deep pitching repertoire that opposing teams are still trying to figure out. He's able to vary his speeds and break on his off-speed pitches, and is able to compliment them with a mid-90s fastball. He has been better on the road than at home (2.16 ERA compared to 3.72 ERA on the road), but he hasn't been missing bats as much as he would like. He's throwing strikes on just 48 percent of first pitches to hitters, with the league average being 59 percent, according to Fangraphs. Falling behind early puts him in more fastball counts, preventing him from using his array of off-speed options. He's also walking more hitters than he would like, leading to a 1.42 WHIP.
A's Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy (3-3, 2.56 ERA) toes in the rubber against his former team in the second game, taking on Matt Harrison (4-3, 5.23 ERA). Harrison has lost three of his last four starts, after starting off the year winning three straight. Throughout his career, he's struggled at home with a 4.77 ERA in 230.1 innings.
The lefty has plus stuff, with a fastball averaging 92 MPH and a hard slider coming in at nearly 86. He also features a changeup and curveball, which he's throwing a career-high rate of better than 14 percent.
McCarthy is coming off one of his strongest starts of the year against the Tigers on Saturday, when he threw seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts, matching a career-high. He'll be looking for his fourth straight victory, after going five starts without a win to begin the year.
The staff ace will have to look out for Adrian Beltre, who owns a career .385/.370/.731 slash line against him. Micheal Young, always a tough out, has a career 1034 OPS against McCarthy.
After the quick trip to Texas, the A's will return to the Bay Area to kick off interleague play when they take on the Giants in San Francisco over the weekend.