Inside Pitch: A's Rookies Battle For Hardware

Three Oakland A's rookies had a sensational July, but Toronto starter Gustavo Chacin won the monthly rookie honor, which illustrates how difficult of a decision the overall rookie of the year voting will be. The A's are in Kansas City this weekend, leading the wild card and still chasing the Angels for the division lead, getting key contributions from a number of rookies that will be challenging for the rookie of the year award.

"It's tough this year," said A's shortstop Bobby Crosby, who won the award last year. "There's a lot of guys to consider. I didn't have as much competition last year."

Crosby joked recently to Nick Swisher, who is hitting .256 overall, that he needs to lower his average because Crosby batted just .239 in winning the award last year.

Swisher's averages (batting, on-base, slugging) were .278/.365/.588 in July, with six home runs and 21 RBIs. Dan Johnson's averages were .364/.438/.610 with four home runs and 12 RBIs. Closer Huston Street was 2-0 with five saves, a 1.20 ERA and a .204 opponents average in July. And that production doesn't include the great work that fourth starter Joe Blanton has put in this season. Blanton won the Rookie of the Month award in June. Blanton is 6-4 with an ERA under 3.00 since his struggles in May and he defeated Minnesota ace Johan Santana by a score of 2-1 in his last start.

Chacin went 5-0 with a 2.97 ERA in six starts in July to win the monthly award.

When it was suggested voters might split their votes among the A's quartet, which would allow Chacin (11-5, 3.28), Minnesota reliever Jesse Crain (9-1, 2.83 ERA), or Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano (.297) to sneak in and win the award, one A's non-rookie said, "that would suck."

The A's could end up sweeping the top three spots in the rookie voting, which Swisher admitted "would be really cool."

That's only happened once before, in 1960, and it was when voters only picked one, instead of a top three. Baltimore shortstop Ron Hansen (22 votes), pitcher Chuck Estrada (one vote) and first baseman Jim Gentile (one vote) finished 1-2-3.

The A's are looking to have back-to-back Rookies of the Year for the first time since the late 1980s, when Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Walt Weiss went back-to-back-to-back from 1986-1988. The emergence of Swisher, Johnson, Street and Blanton serves to demonstrate the strength of the A's minor league system, which has produce a number of star players over the past ten years. All four of the A's rookies have been drafted by Oakland.

Haren's Just A Winner

While it might seem the A's never lose these days, they still do ... oh, about once every two weeks.

Just never when Dan Haren starts a game.

Haren's personal streak began the day after the A's turnaround began, back on May 31, and Tuesday night was another example of how the team and starting pitcher seem to do no wrong.

Despite allowing more hits than innings pitched for his sixth consecutive start, Haren limited the damage to a pair of solo home runs, and the A's won for the 13th straight time when Haren is on the mound, 5-2, over the Twins.

"I haven't thrown particularly well the last 5-6 starts," Haren said. "I've left several games we were losing. The offense has really picked me up the last month."

Haren's streak ties Storm Davis' run of 13 straight games with the A's winning (July 3-Sept. 5, 1988) for the second-longest in team history. The A's record is 14 straight in Chuck Dobson's starts from May 12-July 20, 1971.

It's like guaranteed-win day when Haren starts. He is 8-0 in the 13 starts, taking his record from 1-7 to 9-7 overall. In the five no-decisions during the run, the A's won four in extra innings (all in July).

Down 8 1/2 games to the Angels in the American League West entering play two weeks ago, the A's have won 15 of 16 games. The Angels won Tuesday and Wednesday to remain in first place, at least for now.

The A's have won 21 of 24 games and 34 of 42.

"It's unreal," Haren said. "I've never been a part of anything like this. The funny thing is, I said that 2-3 weeks ago. Everyone else is waiting for us to go away, and we just keep winning. We expect to win."

One person who has seen something like it is Scott Hatteberg, one of just three players remaining from the 2002 team that won 20 straight games.

"Back then, we were counting," Hatteberg said. "It was like, 'Oh my God, we won another.' Honestly, I don't even know what our record is the last few weeks. I'm sure it's amazing. But we're not taking a count.

"We had it so bad the first two couple months, it just feels really good. We have a real positive attitude. We're just relishing it, I guess."

Johnson's Successful Homecoming

As the ball dropped into right-center, nearly 200 fans in the stands were cheering wildly, while the rest of the Metrodome was silent, and it was as if those cheers added some speed to Dan Johnson as he slid into second base with a hustle double.

Two batters later, Scott Hatteberg found a hole in the infield with a single up the middle, Johnson scored what proved to the winning run, and it was bedlam for the residents of Coon Rapids, Minn.

Johnson won't ever forget his first game in front of his family and friends, neither will the IRS, and neither will the Athletics, who added to their amazing run with a 2-1 victory Monday night over Johan Santana and the Minnesota Twins.

"It was one of my top moments in baseball, I'll tell you that," Johnson said. "It was above the College World Series. Coming home like this, knowing all my family and friends were here to see me play for the first time in the big leagues, was just a great feeling."

It was 1-1 in the seventh, when Johnson hit a ball that might not even drop, and he probably wouldn't try for second, if the injured Torii Hunter was playing center field.

"Out of the box, I saw from the corner of my eye that (Lew Ford) had to run to his glove side," Johnson said. "I was going to make him make that throw because it's a tough throw off balance like that, going across his body."

It was the type of aggressive baserunning the A's have been doing regularly during their two-month run.

"He doesn't have much speed, but it was the right decision leading off the (seventh) inning," A's manager Ken Macha said. "That's the time to take a chance. We've been running the bases well."

Johnson had 50 tickets on his pass list, which will add $1,900 to his taxable revenue on his next paycheck. His father, Ron, bought another 100 tickets for family and friends from Coon Rapids, a city of about 63,000 located 13 miles from the Metrodome. The crowd got their money's worth, as Johnson went on to single in the game-winning run in the second game of the series and hit solo homers in the third and fourth games. He moved into the fifth spot in the batting order in the latter part of the series, and it is a spot the rookie may stick in for awhile.

Meanwhile, Johnson's teammates had some fun with the rookie. In a pregame interview, Johnson admitted being a Twins fan growing up, so somebody put a Twins uniform in his locker with his name written on athletic tape on the back.

Kotsay's Achin' Back

CF Mark Kotsay admitted he hasn't been 100 percent since June 4-5, when his back flared up and he missed two games.

He's been trying to manage the pain, which comes and goes periodically, but didn't want to use that as an excuse for why his batting average dropped from .290 to .269 over that span.

"Everybody in here has some nagging injury throughout the course of the season," said Kotsay, who missed five straight games last week. "If I felt like I could go out there and compete and help the ballclub, I would. At this point, I don't feel like the level of strength or flexibility would help the ballclub."

Manager Ken Macha said he's noticed Texas pitched him with hard stuff high and inside a lot. Kotsay's inside-out swing wasn't quite getting there for a few games, but he took extra batting practice before one game and lined a ball off the wall.

Kotsay agreed he would be playing if this was September, even if it meant getting an epidural. But he said the goal is to treat the back pain now as best as possible, so he doesn't have to deal with it in September.

"Not being able to go out there is frustrating," said Kotsay, who returned to the A's lineup July 31. "But at the same point, you look at it like the time off will probably help you in the long run. That's what you have to focus on."

Kotsay will get two days off to rest his back, as he flew back to California on Thursday morning to join his wife as she gave birth to the couple's second child. Kotsay is expected to re-join the team on Saturday in Kansas City.

Other Notes

--RHP Huston Street recorded a save Thursday for the third time in four games and his seventh conversion in a row. He struck out the side (all swinging) to lower his ERA to 1.33. Street's 12 saves tie him with Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers for the most by an Oakland A's rookie. Street pitched only once on the last six-game homestand, but he warmed up in every game and was "hot" because he was one batter away from entering a game twice.

--RHP Dan Haren has allowed 20 hits in his last two starts, but just six runs. "I've pitched out of jams pretty well, but I'm definitely making it hard on myself," Haren said. "I'm doing a good job with runners in scoring position and I need to keep doing that. It's been a grind for me to get a 1-2-3 inning."

--RHP Jay Witasick continued his contributions to the wins, striking out the side in the eighth inning Tuesday with a slider that teammates called "filthy."

--2B Mark Ellis laid down a bunt single in the seventh inning Tuesday that was the sixth of the year by an A's hitter.

--1B Scott Hatteberg, now a respectable 4-for-12 lifetime against Johan Santana, delivered the game-winning RBI in the seventh inning Monday with a single up the middle.

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