Clubhouse Chatter: Oakland A's Surge Ahead

The Oakland A's remained red-hot, as they picked up their sixth straight win in the oppressive Texas heat. The A's remarkable turnaround continued on Sunday with another dominating victory over the Texas Rangers in Arlington. The A's won six of seven on their road-trip through the top teams of the AL West and have finished the trek in a tie for first place in the AL Wild Card race and only 5.5 games back of the Angels for the AL West lead. We take a look back at the A's run back into contention.

Things couldn't have been bleaker on May 30. The A's were sitting on an eight-game losing streak and, at 17-32, were the owners of one of the worst records in major league baseball. With two-outs in the ninth inning, the A's were one strike away from losing their ninth straight. Then Nick Swisher rolled a single up the middle and two batters later, he came around as the tying run on a clutch hit from catcher Jason Kendall. Mark Kotsay singled in the game-winning run in the bottom of the 11th and the A's were back in the win column. No one could have guessed that the A's would visit the loss column only 13 times between that May 30 win and July 24. In the process, the A's have pulled themselves off the matt and are in position to make a legitimate playoff push.

So what has propelled this unbelievable change of fortunes? There have been a number of factors, but one factor in particular has been the return of shortstop Bobby Crosby. The A's were beaten down with injuries in April and May. Closer Octavio Dotel pitched hurt and then was lost for the season. DH Erubiel Durazo went down on May 28 with an injury he would not return from. Ace Rich Harden missed six weeks with an oblique injury. Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Swisher was lost for three weeks with a separated shoulder. But no one injury hurt more than Crosby's broken rib.

When Crosby returned on May 30, he brought with him a potent bat, solid defense up the middle and an energy that is contagious. Crosby's presence at shortstop allowed the A's to move Marco Scutaro back to second base, where he is more comfortable defensively. It also allowed the A's to remake the top of their line-up. Crosby came off the DL with a red-hot bat and he was able to move into the third slot in the order.

That allowed the A's to flip Mark Kotsay and Jason Kendall at the top of the line-up. Since that time, the A's offense has clicked. Kendall, in particular, has benefited from the move back into the lead-off spot. After a slow start, Kendall has his batting average in range of .300. He is hitting .321 in 168 at-bats as a lead-off hitter. He hit .212 in 137 at-bats as the A's second hitter.

Third baseman Eric Chavez has also benefited from the A's new line-up. Chavez was moved to the clean-up spot when Crosby returned. He had hit .241 in 174 at-bats as a third-place hitter. As the clean-up man, Chavez has hit .293 with a .500 slugging percentage.

Oakland's line-up has also improved thanks to the contributions of two rookies. When Durazo went out of the line-up on May 28, the A's brought up rookie Dan Johnson from Sacramento to take his place. Durazo was arguably the A's best hitter in 2004, so Johnson had large shoes to fill when he arrived in Oakland. The big left-hander has been well up to the task. Johnson has played nearly every day since being recalled and he has been a solid contributor to the A's line-up. He has an 845 OPS and has driven in 22 runs in 45 games. Johnson's arrival also allowed the A's to move Scott Hatteberg from first base to DH. Hatteberg had struggled defensively at the start of the season and Johnson has brought improved first base glovework to the A's infield.

Right around the same time that Johnson was brought up to Oakland, Nick Swisher returned to the line-up after a three week absence. When Swisher hurt himself crashing into an outfield wall, he was hitting .215. Since the start of June, Swisher has hit .275 with 11 homers and 36 RBI. Swisher's power at the bottom of the line-up and his flair for the dramatic has given the A's offense new life. Swisher has also given the A's solid defense at first base in place of Johnson on occasion. Since May 30, the A's and their new line-up have scored more runs than any team in the major leagues.

The A's pitching staff has also played a large role in the A's resurgence. The bullpen, in particular, has been rock solid. At the start of the season, the A's looked like they were going to have one of the best bullpens in the American League. However, injuries to Kiko Calero and Dotel in late April rendered the A's bullpen ineffective. An injured Dotel allowed back-to-back walk-off homers to the Boston Red Sox in mid-May. Set-up man Juan Cruz was forced into tight late-game situations while Calero was injured and he failed in almost all of those situations.

There was a silver-lining in the A's bullpen struggles in May. While Dotel and Calero were hurting, rookie Huston Street and second-year man Justin Duchscherer were busy establishing themselves as top-flight relievers. Both were tested early in the season and passed those tests with flying colors. Once Dotel was put on the DL for good, Street was moved into the closer role and Duchscherer was moved from being a long-man to a top set-up man and occasional closer. Both moves solidified the A's bullpen and it has been one of the best bullpens in the league in June and July.

The A's starting rotation in those two months hasn't been too shabby, either. Since May 30, the A's starting pitchers are 21-5 with an ERA under 3.00. Barry Zito has lifted his record from 1-6 to 8-8 and his ERA has dropped from 4.85 to 3.55. Dan Haren has won seven straight decisions to bring his record to 8-7. Joe Blanton won the Rookie of the Month for his stellar June efforts and fifth starter Kirk Saarloos has gone 5-2 since the start of June.

However, perhaps the most important aspect of the starting rotation has come from the top spot, which is now firmly held by third year starter Rich Harden. Harden returned from the DL and he brought with him some of the filthiest stuff in the league. In six starts since his June 21 return from an oblique strain, Harden is 6-1 with a 2.00 ERA. He has allowed one or no earned runs in all but two of his starts. Harden's dominance has given the A's almost an automatic win at the top of the rotation and has joined with Zito to give the A's one of the top 1-2 starting pitching punches in the American League.

With the recent additions of relievers Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick and outfielder Jay Payton, the A's are armed with one of the deepest teams they have had in years. They have a long way to go before they can punch a ticket for the playoffs, but considering where the team was on May 30, it is a remarkable feat that Oakland is considered one of the strongest contenders for a spot in October.


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