A's face big test with Red Sox in town

Coming off a successful 4-2 road trip, the Athletics return to Oakland to face the Boston Red Sox, marking their second-straight series against a powerhouse team to wrap up the unofficial first half of the regular season.

With the All-Star break ahead, the A's are looking to finish off the early portion of the season strong, having built a solid foundation for a playoff run. And unlike 2012, it won't take a drastic comeback to pull off another division title. This time they are in the driver's seat.

The Red Sox come to Oakland owning the best record in the American League and should provide another litmus test for the A's, as they continue to grasp their strengths and weaknesses heading into the trading deadline. Oakland enters the weekend a game up on the second-place Rangers.

There are thoughts the Athletics could use upgrades in the starting rotation and in the bullpen, but considering the way the front office has shown patience at the deadline the last few seasons, minor moves after the waiver deadline might be the ones made.

The shadow cast by baseball's investigation into the Biogenisis clinic in South Florida is the big wild card – not only because of the potential for Bartolo Colon to get a 100-game suspension, but also because the time frame remains clouded. Should Major League Baseball suspend Colon, the Players Union would fight against the suspension as long as he hasn't failed a performance enhancing drug test since last season. There's no telling how long the appeals process would take given the number of players allegedly involved and the order in which appeals are heard.

If Colon were suspended for the remainder of the season, it would be a devastating blow to a rotation that's already missing ace Brett Anderson. With all the uncertainty, the contingency plan likely falls on rookie hurler Sonny Gray, who would likely move back into a starting role after getting promoted from Triple-A Sacramento and moved to the bullpen. The timing is also a complicated situation that would take time to figure out, with Dan Straily being sent to the minor leagues and the final spot in the rotation not being needed until July 23.

Yankees' scouts have recently attended the A's series in Kansas City and watched the River Cats play in Sacramento. Given the way starter Phil Hughes has thrown in Oakland over his career, he appears to be a reasonable trade target to add depth to the rotation if the price is to the Athletics' liking.

Oakland promoted another top prospect while winning two of three in Pittsburgh when they added infielder Grant Green from the River Cats. It was a surprising move in some ways considering his relative inexperience at second base, despite having a very hot bat in recent weeks in for the Triple-A club. That inexperience reared it's head in a few plays, including his inability to turn a routine double play and a throwing error.

But Green's ability to hit left-handed pitching will keep him in the major leagues through this weekend's set against the Red Sox and likely until after the break. Aside from the massive adjustment from Triple-A pitching he's dealing with, Green is also working in a part-time role for the first time in his baseball life. But if there's a manager with a track record of maximizing talent in a part-time position, it's Bob Melvin.

The series kicks of Friday night when Jarrod Parker (6-6, 4.04 ERA) takes on John Lackey (6-6, 2.80). Parker received the no-decision in his last start in Kansas City after the bullpen couldn't hold a 3-2 lead in the A's only loss of the series.

The right-hander has continued to pitch very well of late, allowing just a .175 average against, 542 opponents OPS and 2.18 ERA in his last seven starts. He's also been getting ground balls at a 68 percent clip, with a 15:6 K:BB ratio. Parker hasn't lost a start in Oakland since April 25.

Lackey is having a resurgent season after missing all of 2012 due to Tommy John surgery. Despite just a .500 record, his 155 ERA+ is a new career high, which says an awful lot considering some of the season's he had with the Angels. The righty has been impressive over his last five outings, pitching into at least the seventh in each and posting a 2.25 ERA. He has a career 2.85 ERA and 1.08 WHIP in Oakland over 17 starts.

Saturday's affair will have John Lester (8-5, 4.60) go against A.J. Griffin (7-6, 3.94). Lester has been somewhat disappointing of late with a 6.08 ERA over his last 11 starts after throwing a complete-game one-hitter against Toronto May 10. The talented left-hander has been one of baseball's most durable pitchers over the last few seasons and the innings might be catching up with him. He has a 4.21 career ERA against the A's in 11 outings.

Griffin is coming off a five-inning, two-run performance against the Royals earning his seventh win of the season and first on the road since May 25 in Houston. Griffin continues to put together consistent performances and hasn't had back-to-back quality starts since May 13 and 19 against Texas and Kansas City.

But the right-hander has thrown alright against the Red Sox in his brief career, allowing hitters a .221/.264/.426 slash line, but three home runs have ballooned his ERA to 5.29.

The Red Sox have yet to announce the starter in Sunday's series finale, but the A's will counter with Colon (12-3, 2.69) who enters the start tied for the American League lead with a 2.69 ERA. Colon has told reporters he believes this is the best year of his career, which is truly remarkable considering he's debuted in the big leagues in 1997 and won a Cy Young in 2005. But with half the season to play, his .800 winning percentage and 1.11 WHIP are career highs.

This start will make Colon ineligible to throw in the All-Star game next week. American League manager Jim Leyland has yet to announce a replacement, although many expect it to be A's closer Grant Balfour, who has been arguably one of the best relievers in the league. He has yet to blow a save in 24 chances this year and recently broke the club's all-time consecutive-saves record held by Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley.

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