Can The A's Handle The Heat In Texas?

If the Oakland A's hope to make any noise in the American League playoff race this season, they will have to start with a good showing in a tough series on the road against the division leading Texas Rangers.

At 37-39, Oakland is treading water in the AL West but could take a big step in the right direction by getting to .500 before the All-Star break starts on July 9. It won't be easy, however, with seven games of the 10 remaining games in the first half coming against two of the best offenses in baseball in Texas and the Boston Red Sox, who come to Oakland next week.

The next two series could foreshadow what's shaping up to be a very challenging summer for the A's. After the break, 10 of the A's next 12 opponents will have winning records and be in the hunt for either their respective division titles or a wild card berth. How the club goes into the All-Star break will have major ramifications as to how the A's front office approaches the trading deadline.

As it stands, Oakland is five games out of the wild card race behind six teams. The A's will play 10 games against teams competing for wild card position (not including the division leading Yankees and Rangers) before the trading deadline. As unlikely as it seems given the A's offensive struggles, a continuation of Oakland's 15-10 record in June could have the team in the hunt when the deadline comes July 31.

But the A's will have to prove that their solid play in June is sustainable. After all, 15 of the team's 25 games came against the National League West, with eight of those wins coming against the Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres and the Matt Kemp-less Los Angeles Dodgers, who were just shutout for three-straight games in San Francisco.

If the A's have proved anything this year, it is that their quality pitching can be dominant against bad offenses. But without ace Brandon McCarthy for some time, can the team continue to rely on its young starting staff to pick up the impotent offense enough to beat good American League teams? The answer is sure to come in the coming weeks before the trading deadline.

Asking Oakland's extremely young and inexperienced staff to carry the team into contention is too much to ask, making it likely the team slips back out of the race in July. The question then becomes who the team is willing to sell off at the deadline. There are a few possibilities, but those players' trade value will be contingent on their performances.

Coco Crisp has improved his stock since moving back to the leadoff spot on June 14. In 12 games, he's hitting .333/.423/.444 and has stolen six bases. His overall numbers for the season remain disappointing, but he could garner a pair of mid-level prospects in return from a contending team needing speed atop a lineup. A trade could also take the remainder of his $13 million deal through next season off the books.

Brian Fuentes is another veteran who the team might be willing to move. But he's hit a steep decline in production since May 20. In his last six appearances, he's allowed 12 runs in just 4.2 innings. The left-hander will make $5 million this season and has a team option for $6.5 next year with a $500k buyout. He'll need to string together a few strong outings before any team would be willing to give away anything for him.

Grant Balfour might be the strongest candidate to be traded should the A's fall back in the standings. Since June 5, he's been outstanding out of the A's bullpen, allowing just four hits in 11.2 innings without yielding a run. It's clear he's best suited as a setup man and could have a few teams looking to bolster their relief corps bidding for his services.

The A's come into the Rangers series having pulled off a two-games-to-one series victory in Seattle to kick off the road trip. The team's pitching was the key after the offense managed just 10 hits in three games, scoring just four runs total. In Thursday's decisive 2-1 win, Oakland's two hits were both solo home runs from Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes has been one of the club's most important players throughout the season and has proven as much since returning from his hamstring injury on June 20. In his eight games since, he's amassed an 899 OPS thanks to his three home runs, including two in the last two games in Seattle. His production could be an indicator as to how the offense manages in Texas. In wins he has a 903 OPS compared to a 747 OPS in losses. If the A's have any chance against the Rangers, the offense will have to come alive against a banged up pitching staff.

Three of Texas' starting pitchers from their Opening Day roster have seen considerable on the disabled list. Neftali Feliz is on the 60-day DL and hopes to return in July after spraining his elbow. Derek Holland could be back in the coming weeks after suffering shoulder fatigue. Matt Harrison never went to the DL, but is coming off of a sore left hip and is due to start Friday.

To open the series, Oakland will send Tyson Ross (2-7, 6.02) against Scott Feldman (1-6, 6.00). Ross is still looking for his first win since May 14 and some semblance of consistency. He's been tough on hitters in his last two starts, however, allowing just five hits in 11.1 innings. His problem has been control. The Cal alum has forfeited eight walks while striking out nine.

If Ross can regain his feel and use his 6'6" frame to create a downward plane on his pitches in the lower portion of the strike zone, he can be a very effective starter. When he struggles, his pitches flatten out and stay up in the zone. It will be crucial for him to get ahead of hitters and keep his breaking pitches down to avoid the long balls against a Texas lineup that leads baseball in slugging, on-base and OPS.

Feldman lost six-consecutive starts before finally earning a win June 19 in San Diego. He threw against the A's on June 4, but didn't get out of the second inning and allowed eight runs on seven hits, lifting his ERA by more than two and half runs. June can't end quickly enough for the right-hander, after he allowed 26 hits in 18 innings for the month.

Harrison (10-3, 3.24) returns Friday for the Rangers and he will take on A's rookie A.J. Griffin (0-0, 3.00). Harrison has been one of the club's best starters this season and has earned wins in six of his last seven starts. During that run, he's allowed just a 1.29 ERA and 568 OPS against. His strikeout to walk ratio hasn't been shabby either, striking out 28 to just 11 free passes.

The lefty has a quality fastball in the low 90s, a curveball, changeup and slider. He throws his curve and changeup at a very similar rate, making it tough for hitters to sit on any one pitch. It should be noted Friday's game will be played at 7:05 p.m. local time. Harrison has a 1.84 ERA in night games and a 6.52 ERA during the day.

Griffin is coming off of his first major league start. In his debut he allowed two runs on three hits in six solid innings against the Giants. He didn't earn the a decision because it took a walk-off home run from Derek Norris to get the 4-2 win. Considering the right-hander started the season with Double-A Midland, it didn't take him long to get to the big leagues.

A large part of his promotion was due to necessity, but that doesn't mean Griffin didn't earn it. Between Double-A and Triple-A this year, Griffin posted a 2.66 ERA in 15 starts, yielding just 72 hits in 94.2 innings. His first start proved that his success in the minor leagues was no fluke. With Graham Godfrey's struggles this season in the majors and Brad Peacock's inconsistencies with Sacramento, Griffin became the clear option to get the call when Bartolo Colon and McCarthy hit the disabled list.

Griffin doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he has enough variety in his repertoire to keep hitters off balance. His fastball averaged just below 90 MPH, but he throws a slider, changeup and slow curveball at similar rates. The A's will be very interested to see how the 24-year-old fares in just his second major league start, facing the most vaunted offense in baseball.

Another A's rookie - Tommy Milone (8-5) - goes against Justin Grimm (1-1, 11.57) in Saturday's game three. Milone is coming off a great outing in Seattle where he shut out the Mariners in seven innings, backing up a complete-game effort against the Dodgers when he allowed just one run. Milone still has a road ERA of 6.39 and has allowed 14 runs in his last 23 innings (5.47 ERA) in his last four starts away from Oakland.

In Texas back on May 16, Milone went seven innings and allowed four runs, but got no help from his offense as the A's lost, 4-1. But his start in Seattle was his second start there and he finally proved he can be just as effective on the road as in the Coliseum. Perhaps he was more comfortable with his surroundings in his second go around at Safeco Field. It will also be his second start in Texas giving him to possibility of putting his road struggles behind him.

Grimm will be making just his third major league start. The right-hander has allowed nine runs in just seven innings so far after making the quick jump from Double-A, where he was 8-3 with a 1.87 ERA. Grimm only has three pitches in his arsenal, but he has a plus fastball.

The Rangers might have rushed Grimm to the big leagues out of need with all of the injuries to their starting pitchers. The University of Georgia product was a fifth-round pick just two seasons ago and is likely to head back to the minor leagues once Holland or Feliz return from injury.

Sunday's series finale will have the talented Japanese import Yu Darvish (10-4, 3.57) take on Travis Blackley (1-2, 3.05). Darvish has impressed in the first half of his rookie season, putting him in discussion for Rookie of the Year honors. But after an outstanding May, the lanky right-hander has taken a small step back. In his five starts this month, Darvish is 3-2 with a 4.15 ERA after his bottomed out at 2.60 when he last faced the A's on May 16.

In his victory against the A's, Darvish lasted 7.2 innings, allowed one run and struck out seven to give his team the win against Milone. He's currently tied for the AL lead in wins after striking out 10 (all swinging) Detroit Tigers Tuesday.

Blackley is coming off another impressive outing against the Mariners Tuesday, holding Seattle to two runs on five hits in seven innings. It was his second straight good start for the reliever-turned-starter, who continues to be a welcomed surprise for an A's team in desperate need of quality starting pitching.

The left-handed Aussie has a 2.85 between the Giants and A's in his 13 games this year and has a 3.57 ERA in his six starts in the club's rotation.

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