It's almost become a yearly tradition in Sacramento.
About the time the calendar turns to July, the River Cats usually find themselves at the top of the Pacific Coast League's Southern Division standings and make a long run through the dog days of summer. This year's version is no different, but they are doing it without two of their best hitters who have gone up to Oakland to make sizeable contributions to the team's struggling lineup.
Brandon Moss and Derek Norris were two of Sacramento's most productive and reliable hitters at the plate throughout the two months of the season when the team was behind Fresno in the standings. But even with those players' promotions to Oakland, the River Cats swept the division-leading Grizzlies in a four-game set from June 19 to 22 to give them the lead in the division. They haven't looked back since and owned a 3.5-game lead headed into action on Sunday.
It is manager Darren Bush's job to develop his players and winning is a big part of the developmental process. But at this stage in the year, he's not concerned with standings.
"I don't really look at standings until the end of the year. I take pride in us playing good baseball and guys playing hard every single every day out there. Win, lose or draw, that's what we as a staff are looking for. How are they playing? I'm happy with that so far," he said.
Including the series sweep of Fresno, Sacramento has won eight of its last 12 games while averaging nearly six runs a game and allowing just 2.75. Lately, the team has seen an infusion of players from the Oakland A's roster who have contributed to the run. Recently named All-Star Graham Godfrey heads the list, followed by Josh Donaldson, Eric Sogard, Daric Barton and Kila Ka'aihue.
Comings and Goings
Tyson Ross was optioned back from Oakland to Sacramento again on Saturday, marking his fourth separate stint in Triple-A this season. It has been tough sledding for the right-hander, who is still looking for some regularity after dealing with an oblique injury that derailed nearly his entire season in 2011.
The Cal alum has gone 2-8 in Oakland in three trips this year, allowing 79 hits in 62.1 innings. He has fared much better in Sacramento, going 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in four starts. With the emergence of Dan Straily, the A's might be content with letting Ross get regular turns in the River Cats' rotation and develop a rhythm without having promotions or demotions altar his routine.
With the constant shuffling to and from the majors, players can get frustrated with the way they've been handled. The most important thing for players in that case is to narrow their focus, Bush said. In Ross' situation, Bush mentioned he can there are ways of using the frustration as fuel.
"It could be somebody else going up there," Bush said. "You're getting the opportunity to go up there; you're creating the opportunity. You would much rather it be you than someone else."
First baseman Chris Carter was promoted to the A's on Friday and promptly hit two home runs in as many games over the weekend against Texas and went three for seven with a walk. The quick start is a welcome sign for Carter, who has developed a reputation as a slow starter when advancing levels.
In 2011, Carter played 15 games with the A's and struggled to get comfortable in the big leagues. In 44 at-bats, he got just six hits – all singles – and walked twice.
"He just changed his approach a little bit. No big changes," River Cats hitting coach Greg Sparks said of his former pupil.
"Just mainly trying to stay over the baseball better, more. Thinking more left-center as opposed to right-center. It's gotten him over the baseball better."
Any sustained success in the big leagues would be huge for both Carter and the A's organization that has been looking for consistency at both corner infield positions for the past few seasons. If Carter was able to provide the power that he's shown in his years in the minor leagues, it would be an added bonus for a club that has struggled to develop power hitters organically.
Shortstop Brandon Hicks' promotion to the A's from Sacramento coincided with Josh Donaldson's return to the River Cats. Just prior to his promotion to Oakland, Hicks went on a seven-game hitting streak where he hit .480 (12 for 25), forcing Oakland's hand. Since his promotion, Hicks has played all over the infield for Oakland, including first base, after spending all of his time in the middle of the diamond for the River Cats.
At the plate, Hicks has cooled off a since hitting doubles in back-to-back games against San Francisco to kick off his major league stint on June 23. He's one for 13 since, and might be facing a demotion in favor of Eric Sogard, who came into Sunday's action hitting .318/.431/.435 with the River Cats this year, hitting safely in four-straight games.
Godfrey was recently named to the Pacific Coast League All-Star team and will be the only River Cat representative in July 11's game in Buffalo, N.Y. Godfrey has been outstanding since being demoted from the A's on May 27, going 8-0 with a 2.31 ERA and 1.46 walk per nine innings ratio. The right-hander is the only player in the Pacific Coast League to win the Pitcher of the Week Award twice (April 30-May 6 and June 4-10).
Donaldson has been white-hot since coming back to the River Cats in his 19 games. After hitting a grand slam on Sunday, the third baseman/catcher is hitting .416 with a 1218 OPS.
"We want to keep him short to the baseball and have him thinking more base-hit. The kid can hit. He gets up there and maybe tries to do too much," Sparks said.
Donaldson struggled in his first extended go at the major league level earlier this season with the A's. In 28 games, he hit .153/.160/.235, taking just one walk in his 100 plate appearances. With Brandon Inge and Norris solidifying the third base and backup catching positions for the time being in Oakland, it might take a call up in September or an injury for Donaldson to get another taste of major league action.
In the meantime, he'll have the opportunity to play in the PCL where he has excelled and take some time to work on refining his approach if and when his time comes with Oakland again.
Reliever Erick Threets has continued his solid season with the River Cats and hasn't yielded a run since June 17, lowering his ERA out of the bullpen to 2.02. He has allowed runs in just one of his last 14 outings, making him one of the most valuable pieces of the team's bullpen.
With his 10 strikeout performance on Sunday, Straily has improved to 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in his three starts since being promoted from Double-A Midland on June 20. Straily continues to lead all of the minor leagues in strikeouts and could join Oakland's rotation after the All-Star break if he continues his torrid pace.