The Oakland A's are coming off a disappointing road trip where they finished 2-4 against the Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals. Fortunately for them, their standing in the Wild Card race didn't take too much of a hit.
The A's return to Oakland 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot and begin a six-game homestand against two more teams from the American League Central. First, the Cleveland Indians come to town, followed by the Minnesota Twins. Both teams are well below .500, giving Oakland ample opportunity to earn victories before traveling to Tampa Bay next week to take on the current leaders in the Wild Card standings. The A's dropped two of three against the Indians in April at the Coliseum.
The A's still own the best record in baseball since the All-Star break, but they are just 5-8 in August after their incredible July, when Oakland finished 19-5. It has been a struggle for the A's to build off of that July run – especially after losing a series to the Royals – emphasizing the importance of taking care of business against lesser teams before September's brutal schedule laden with contenders.
Given that the A's are still one of the worst hitting teams in baseball, the need for quality outings from their starting staff cannot be understated. All three starters set to go against Cleveland are looking to rebound and return to the form that helped the club have the fifth-lowest ERA in baseball. The same can be said for the bullpen, which appears to be in a state of transition.
Grant Balfour has earned saves in consecutive outings, while Ryan Cook has gone two-straight appearances without allowing a run after letting teams score in six of eight games previously. The closer's job is Balfour's for the time being, but the veteran right-hander has a 3.24 ERA in save situations and a 2.17 mark in non-save chances.
Balfour – with eight saves to his credit this season – struggled in the role earlier in the season. His struggles could have been due to how often he was used. Going forward, A's manager Bob Melvin will have the tough job of moderating Balfour's workload to maximize the 34-year-old's effectiveness. In the meantime, Cook will likely remain the main set-up option from the right side with newcomer Pat Neshek, with Jerry Blevins, Sean Doolittle and Jordan Norberto sharing time in crucial spots from the leftside.
After 11 days off, Tom Milone (9-9, 3.91 ERA) gets the start in Friday's series opener. Much had been made of the left-hander's home and road splits, with Milone being much more effective in Oakland. That made his two-straight poor outings in the Coliseum that much more concerning. Thus, the A's decided some rest was in order.
Milone threw 174.1 innings last year between Triple-A and the majors with Washington, for whom he made five starts at the end of the season. In 2012, he has thrown 140.1 major league innings. It's not unusual for rookie starters to hit a wall in August.
Milone will face Zach McAllister (5-4, 3.46 ERA), who is coming off an eight-inning, two-run, three-hit performance in a win over the Boston Red Sox. He hasn't faced the A's in his two seasons in the majors.
McAllister has a full, four-pitch arsenal with a plus fastball and curveball that has gotten significantly better since last season. His walk rate has been consistently good in his first two years in the majors, which has been typical since he was drafted in the third round of the 2006 draft by the Yankees. The big 6'6" righty was the player-to-be-named-later in the trade that sent Austin Kearns to New York in August of 2010.
Bartolo Colon (9-9, 3.55 ERA) goes for the A's in Saturday's game and he will take on Corey Kluber (0-1, 8.56 ERA). The right-handed Kluber will be making his fourth start of 2012 for the Indians. He has struggled, allowing 13 earned runs in 13.2 innings.
A former fourth-round pick of the Padres in 2007, Kluber was another pitcher acquired in a trade by the Tribe. He was sent to Cleveland in the three-way deal that sent Jake Westbrook to St. Louis and Ryan Ludwick to San Diego.
Kluber is a hard thrower whose ERA might be somewhat deceiving if his 5.44 FIP is any indication. His fastball averages better than 93 MPH, but it hasn't been one of his more effective pitches. That title goes to his curveball. He has four pitches, including a cutter he throws 25 percent of the time.
Colon is looking to return to the dominance he exhibited the three starts before his most recent one in Chicago. Against the White Sox, he allowed five earned runs on nine hits to get the loss after not surrendering an earned run in his prior 20.2 innings thrown.
Always dependent on his fastball command, the former Indian has been pretty good against Cleveland. In nine starts, he's 5-3 with a 3.56 ERA against his former team.
Sunday's series finale will have Jarrod Parker (7-7, 3.71 ERA) take on another talented right-hander, Justin Masterson (9-10, 4.50 ERA). Parker, like Milone, was skipped in the rotation over the weekend in Chicago to give him some rest after his recent struggles. But the rookie struggled coming off the extended rest, allowing a five-run inning in Kansas City this week that gave him his seventh loss of the year. He hasn't won since his masterful outing against the New York Yankees on July 21.
Parker is still in his second season since undergoing Tommy John surgery, and he could be a candidate to have his innings reduced if and when Brett Anderson returns to the starting rotation. The A's front office has indicated that they are keeping a close eye on Parker's innings this year and they have the luxury of taking it slow to finish off the season given how many starters the A's will have available to them come September. In his last four starts, Parker is 0-3 with a 6.85 ERA.
Masterson got the loss in his April 22 outing against the A's. He allowed four earned runs in five innings, thanks largely to his six walks allowed. Known for his unique, low arm angle, Masterson's control has plagued him throughout his five-year career. His 1.98 strikeout to walk ratio is far more indicative of his lack of command than his stuff, which can be very good if he's able to locate his pitches.
Last season was Masterson's best as a starter, and he had a 4.9 WAR. This year, that number is 2.2, which is indicative of his 4.03 FIP. The right-hander will be looking to get his third-straight win after allowing just two earned runs in his last 13 innings.