A's Start Toughest Stretch Of The Season

After a successful roadtrip, the Oakland A's return home for the holiday weekend to take on the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox series signals the start of a long stretch of games that will either make or break the A's season. Chris Biderman previews the series.

While there's been drama aplenty over the last 12 months between players and managers in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse, the Oakland A's represent a stark contrast.

Boston manager Bobby Valentine hasn't appeared to gain a grasp of his team in his first year managing in Boston, while A's skipper Bob Melvin appears to be in complete control of his A's, who have thrived thanks to a lose clubhouse atmosphere with free and open lines of communication.

The Red Sox are coming into Oakland fresh off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who didn't lose to Boston in their season series this year and have managed to keep pace with the A's, but still find themselves 3.5 games behind in the wild card hunt.

Boston is fading fast and sits at eight games below .500 heading into the season's final month and is in danger of failing to make the postseason for the third-straight season. Expectations have increased drastically since the club won two World Series championships in a seven-year span – after going 86 seasons without a title – meaning another managerial change could be in the cards in the coming offseason.

The Red Sox's front office has done everything to concede the season without saying so, signaled by the blockbuster trade that shipped more than a quarter-billion dollars of salary to the Los Angeles Dodgers for James Loney and a package of prospects. First baseman Adrian Gonzalez, pitcher Josh Beckett and outfielder Carl Crawford were all acquisitions made by the previous regime who were tabbed as expensive and disgruntled malcontents this season.

The trade gives Boston lots of flexibility going forward, especially in the free agent market for 2013. Josh Hamilton is likely the first name to be considered. He could command upwards of $20 million a season and would fit into the Red Sox corner outfield or first base situation almost immediately. Starting pitching is also a need, with arms such as Zack Grienke and the A's Brandon McCarthy potentially available.

Oakland is coming off an outstanding road trip, where it went 6-1 and pushed past the Tampa Bay Rays for first place in the Wild Card standings. The A's continued to benefit from the extra-base hit, knocking 11 home runs and 21 doubles in the seven games, putting together a .494 slugging percentage as a team.

The A's have all of the momentum it could need at this point with a daunting September schedule ahead. After hosting Boston, 21 of the remaining 27 games come against teams contending for playoff spots, including a three-city, 10-game road trip through Detroit, New York and Texas that has the potential to define the A's season.

Reinforcements could be on the way as soon as Saturday, when rosters are eligible to expand from 25 to 40. That means Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin could be available to start games for Oakland to give others rest or become long options out of the bullpen. Position players such as Collin Cowgill, Michael Taylor, Jermaine Mitchell, Daric Barton will also likely be in the mix to add depth.

Second baseman Jemile Weeks should also return after amassing a .419/.500/.548 hitting line in seven games with Triple-A Sacramento. Weeks had been struggling at the major league level for nearly all of 2012, but he appears to have ironed out his mechanical issues in the low-pressure environment in Sacramento with hitting coach Greg Sparks. His resurgence with the A's could be a huge boost atop the lineup when paired with the hot-hitting Coco Crisp in front of run producers Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Brandon Inge is another name to keep an eye on. He'll likely return on Saturday, giving the A's a tough decision to make at third base. As one of the club's few veterans, Inge has been a leader for the team despite not putting up outstanding numbers at the plate. Lately, Josh Donaldson has by hitting .350/.418/.600 in 16 games since Inge went down with a shoulder injury. Melvin will have a tough time taking Donaldson out of the lineup.

McCarthy (7-5, 3.12 ERA) gets the start in the series' first game Friday night when he takes on Aaron Cook (3-7, 4.76 ERA). McCarthy is coming off a solid outing in Tampa Bay, when he yielded just two runs on four hits in seven innings to help his team to the 4-2 win.

McCarthy has strung together more than three consecutive healthy starts for the first time since April, hoping to prove he can be reliable during the final five weeks of his free agent year. The 107 pitches he threw against the Rays were the most in a game since May 2 – his last start against the Red Sox – when he allowed a run in 6.2 innings en route to the win.

Cook has struggled in his first 12 starts with Boston since signing as a free agent in January. The long-time Colorado Rockies' hurler has lost six of his last seven decisions, allowing 61 hits in 51.1 innings over that span. Cook relies heavily using his fastball to pitch to contact. Hitters rarely strike out or walk against the right-hander, who's getting a career-high 63.3 percent ground ball rate.

Saturday's starters will be Felix Doubront (10-6, 4.79 ERA) and A.J. Griffin (3-0, 2.42 ERA). Doubront has struggled in his last three starts, allowing 13 earned runs in 14.1 innings. Saturday's outing will be just his second since returning from the disabled list after suffering a knee contusion, although it was believed he needed the time to rest, not heal his knee.

The talented rookie left-hander has shown off some good stuff in his first season in the Red Sox rotation, but he has struggled with command, allowing nearly four walks per nine innings. His BABIP of .319 indicates hitters are making solid contact against him, as are the 19 home runs he's allowed in 23 starts.

Griffin returns to the rotation after three weeks on the disabled list with a sore shoulder. The right-hander made two rehab appearances with the Sacramento River Cats. He struggled a bit in his first outing but threw five innings of one-run ball in the light air of Colorado Springs in his last outing.

The USD alum and 2010 13th-round draft pick by the A's began the year in Double-A but he breezed through that level and pitched extremely well in Sacramento before earning a promotion to the big leagues in mid-June. Griffin has been steady as a big leaguer, holding opposing batters to a .202 average and posting a 35:10 K:BB ratio in 44.2 innings. In the minor leagues, Griffin struck-out 91 and walked only 18 in 102 innings. He can be touched occasionally by the homerun ball, as he has allowed five in the big leagues.

Sunday's series finale will see Brett Anderson (2-0, 0.64 ERA) and Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-3, 5.10 ERA). Anderson is coming off a stellar outing in Cleveland where he shutout the Indians on two hits through seven innings with a pair of walks. Anderson's stuff appears to be all the way back since undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer. The addition of Griffin into the rotation has allowed the A's to give Anderson an extra day of rest, something they are likely to try to do as much as possible this season as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

He is throwing his fastball with ease in the low-90s and is able to reach back and bring it up to 94. The major difference with Anderson post-surgery has been his curveball, which he's thrown with far more frequency. Prior, he relied heavily on snapping his slider, which has taken a back seat to his slower curveball. But he's been able to throw both pitches effectively in his two starts since returning.

Matsuzaka will be making just his second start since returning from an injury he suffered in a start against Oakland on July 2. He was solid in his first, allowing just an unearned run over seven frames against Kansas City. The right-hander has struggled throughout his career in Oakland, with a 5.64 ERA in five starts, despite striking out 23 hitters in 22.1 innings.

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