Big Challenge Ahead For A's In Tampa

It should have been a home-stand remembered for the Oakland A's 10-year reunion for the record-breaking 2002 squad. Instead, it will be remembered for a drug suspension, a trade, a demotion and the return of a star from injury. Now the A's head out on the road to face one of the hottest teams in baseball in the Tampa Bay Rays. Chris Biderman previews the crucial series.

It's been quite the week for the Oakland A's.

First, the team made a splash and acquired a new shortstop. Then, a former ace returned after missing more than 14 months due to Tommy John surgery. But the biggest story might have been Bartolo Colon's 50-game suspension – the result of a drug test showing enhanced levels of testosterone.

Not to be forgotten, the A's also played baseball.

Amidst the flurry of roster moves and the suspension of arguably the team's best starting pitcher of late, the A's managed a 5-1 home-stand and were able to build some momentum before their most important series of the season. The A's travel cross-country to take on the Rays, the club they are currently trailing in the Wild Card standings (the Rays are in the number one Wild Card slot, while the A's are in the number two slot). The last time the two teams met, the Rays took two of three in Oakland, evening the season series to 3-3 after the A's won two in Tampa in early May.

Originally, Colon was slated to start the series on the hill, but he will miss the remaining 39 games of the regular season and the first 11 games of the playoffs, should the A's make it that far. Regardless, it's likely the 15-year-veteran has pitched his last game in green-and-gold.

With Colon gone, Oakland is missing a pitcher who strung together a 4-1 run with a 1.57 ERA over his last five starts. He paced a starting rotation that was beginning to struggle and show signs of fatigue in the weeks following the All-Star break. Now, the A's have dipped back into their minor league talent pool to promote right-hander Tyson Ross into the rotation, for the time being.

Ross, the hard-throwing former second-round selection, had a rough go in 12 starts with the A's early in the year before being demoted to straighten out his mechanics with Triple-A Sacramento. He had a 1.75 WHIP and 1.17 strikeout-to-walk ratio with Oakland and wasn't progressing in the major leagues as the team had hopped.

Since then, Ross has ironed out some mechanical issues with the coaching staff in Sacramento, and he has put together a solid summer in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

In 11 starts with the River Cats since his demotion, Ross has a 2.58 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 66.2 innings. His 25 walks gave him an improved 2.32 K-to-BB ratio. In his last two starts, he has thrown a combined 10.2 innings, giving up just a pair of earned runs. However, his control was an issue, as he yielded nine walks after allowing more than three in an appearance just once since joining the team in early-June.

The Cal alum has had a tumultuous last two seasons, dealing with injuries and the shuffle between the major leagues and Triple-A. But over his last two months in Sacramento, he was able to take a step back from the politics involved in roster decisions and focus on becoming the pitcher he was before being sidelined with an oblique injury in May of last year.

The renewed outlook has Ross looking more like the major league pitcher he once was, rather than simply a talented thrower trying to do too much to impress, as he was earlier in the season.

But Ross also caught a break.

Had Colon not been suspended when he was, Ross might have struggled to get major leagues starts going forward in 2012 with A.J. Griffin beginning rehab on his sore shoulder with Sacramento this week and Dan Straily's emergence this season.

Ross was originally scheduled to start Wednesday of this week in Sacramento, but was pushed to Thursday to allow Griffin to make his first rehab outing. Then, with that extra day's rest, he was called up to take Colon's place in the big leagues.

If the announcement of Colon's suspension had come before the A's brought Brett Anderson back to the active roster on Monday, it's likely the A's would have chosen to keep Straily in Oakland rather than sending him to Triple-A as they did on Monday. With a 10-day rule in effect that prevents players from being brought back to the big leagues less than 10 days after their demotion (unless a player is sent to the DL), Straily is ineligible to return to the A's roster until next Wednesday.

Ross won't be the only new face with the A's in Tampa. Stephen Drew was acquired by Oakland on Monday night and made his debut with the team on Tuesday. In two games since joining his new club, Drew is still looking for his first hit with the A's. But his struggles aren't exclusive to Oakland, as he has gone 23 plate appearances without registering a hit. He's walked four times, including twice during Wednesday's win.

Since his return from an ankle injury that sidelined him for nearly a year, Drew has only played in 42 games. His combined 586 OPS with the Diamondbacks and A's is a far cry from his career 763 mark, with the law of averages indicating he's due to go on a run at the plate.

But with just 39 games left in the season, there isn't much time for him to go on that run. Drew is likely to take a big pay cut next season given his $10 million option and $1.35 million buyout. If he allows those figures to run through his head, he might find himself pressing too hard to get out of his slump.

Third baseman Josh Donaldson has been a revelation for the A's since rejoining the club August 14 when Brandon Inge hit the disabled list with a shoulder injury. In nine games, Donaldson has put together a .429/.459/.657 slash line with a pair of home runs and five doubles. The adjustments he made in Sacramento appear to have paid off in a big way, and could present the A's with a very tough decision when Inge is eligible to return from the disabled list next week. The A's could elect to keep Inge on the DL until September 1, which would allow them to have both Donaldson and Inge on the expanded September roster.

Inge's .224 average and .285 on-base percentage leave a little to be desired, but he has managed 50 RBIs since joining the A's, thanks largely to a .325 average with runners in scoring position. He's Oakland's only position player with postseason experience.

Opposing Ross (2-8, 6.35 ERA) to open the unusual three-game set in Tampa that begins on a Thursday will be youngster Alex Cobb (7-8, 4.74 ERA). After winning three straight starts, Cobb struggled last week against the Los Angeles Angels, allowing eight runs in just 2.2 innings on 12 hits. In seven starts prior, he went 4-3 with a sub-three ERA.

That run included an August 1 start in Oakland, when the right-hander threw seven innings of one-run ball against the A's in Tampa Bay's 8-5 win. Cobb has relatively average stuff, but is noticeably better at home than on the road. His ERA is more than a run less at Tropicana Field, while his strikeout-per-nine innings ratio is nearly doubled at 8.7.

A's leadoff hitter Coco Crisp went 3-for-3 in the loss to Cobb and the Rays. Crisp has been on fire of late, going 9-for-21 in his last five games with a 1383 OPS and seven runs scored. His struggles in the season's first two months are well behind him, as he's managed a 905 second half OPS compared to 617 in the first half.

Subject to trade rumors for most of the first half of the season, Crisp has been a key component in the A's second-half surge.

Friday's second game of the series will feature a pair of impressive rookie starters. Joe Maddon will send lefty Matt Moore (10-7, 3.57 ERA) to take on Jarrod Parker (8-7 3.48 ERA). Moore has had an outstanding summer since getting off to a rocky start to his first full season in the majors.

Since June 3, Moore is 9-2 with a 2.79 ERA, having allowed just 71 hits in 87 innings. Coming into the season as's top prospect in baseball, Moore appears to be getting comfortable in the major leagues, which could be a scary proposition for other American League teams looking at a rotation that already has David Price.

After struggling since his signature performance against the Yankees on July 21, Parker had a much-needed outing his last time out against the Indians. The rookie right-hander threw eight shutout innings, and he allowed just seven base runners in total. In his previous four starts, he had a 6.85 ERA, leaving some to question his ability to contribute the rest of the way in his first full season in the major leagues.

Given how well Moore has pitched at home recently, the A's will need a strong outing from Parker against an offense that has struggled offensively this season.

In fact, the makeup of the A's and Rays is very similar. Both teams have a team average in the .230s with good walk rates and rely heavily on their pitching and defense.

In Saturday's series finale Brandon McCarthy (6-5, 3.16 ERA) and Jeremy Hellickson (8-8, 3.28 ERA) will be the match-up. Assuming McCarthy can make his fourth-straight start in the rotation – something he hasn't done since May – he'll be looking to rebound after a miserable performance at the hands of the Minnesota Twins on Monday.

The righty lasted just 3.1 innings and allowed six runs on 10 hits to the Twins, lifting his ERA from 2.68. McCarthy is still looking for his first win since returning from the DL on August 10, but he threw well in his previous two starts before Monday's loss.

Like Drew, McCarthy is facing crunch time without a contract for next season. There's little doubt the A's think highly of their ace, but his injury troubles might make it tough to justify handing him another $4.25 million deal given the number of arms the team already has as potential replacements. With Colon done for the year, McCarthy represents one of just two veteran starters in a rotation that will need all the leadership it can get going in September. Assuming Parker and Milone take the next step in their progressions in 2013, having Parker, Milone and Brett Anderson atop the rotation isn't a bad proposition for Oakland.

But should McCarthy stay healthy the rest of the way and pitch as he is capable of, it's likely the team would bring him back to lead another young starting staff. He has been a natural fit since joining the A's in 2011.

Hellickson has been solid for the Rays over his last six starts after earning losses in his previous six decisions. He's 4-2, with a 2.55 ERA and has put together a solid second half overall since struggling June.

The right-hander has good stuff, including a fastball that averages better than 91, with a changeup he throws nearly 30 percent of the time. He also incorporates curveball and a rarely-used cutter.

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