Slumping A's Look For Rocky Mountain High

Smith returns home to Colorado.

The Oakland A's weren't able to build any momentum after picking up a series victory in the four-game set over the first place Texas Rangers last week. Instead, they restarted interleague play in Arizona by getting swept by the D-Backs and knocked to a season-low nine games under .500.

Seth Smith returned to a place where he hit well earlier in his career in the National League West, going 5-for-8 in the series with a home run and three driven in, raising his OPS 50 points to 777 over the weekend. Tuesday marks the first time he faces the Colorado Rockies since the team traded him to the A's in the offseason for pitchers Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman, who have both struggled this year.

It's an interesting and perhaps convenient time for Smith to begin hitting the ball well for the A's. Prior to Yoenis Cespedes' injury issues, Smith was used primarily in a platoon role against right-handed pitchers, sharing time in the outfield and at designated hitter with Jonny Gomes. He's shown a propensity to get on base at a good clip (.372 OBP this year) despite his somewhat limited playing time while proving his value defensively by making a spectacular play to rob a home run from Aaron Hill in Friday's loss.

Smith is 11-for-20 (.550) in his last six games. The timing of his hot streak is convenient because of what is happening with Manny Ramirez for Triple-A Sacramento.

Ramirez is also coming around at the plate after struggling to find a rhythm while dealing with tightness in his legs since joining the River Cats. On Monday, he extended his mini-hitting streak to five games, where he's 7-for-19 (.368). He's also driven in six runs in his last four contests. But he's getting on base at a low clip and only has three extra-base hits (all doubles) in his 39 at-bats.

Those numbers appear concerning, but considering Ramirez is working his way back with a spring training approach and he's starting to show hints of consistent production has to be pleasing to the A's brass. It could lead to him joining the major league club on Friday when the team returns to Oakland to play the San Diego Padres over the weekend. The three-game set in Colorado will be the last time the A's play on the road in a National League park in the regular season, so the A's will have the DH spot available for all its remaining games.

With his recent increase in production, Smith is putting himself in prime position to be left out of the discussion of who would be on the losing end of Ramirez' promotion. Whether it's Gomes, Collin Cowgill or anyone else could hinge on what happens during the next three games in Colorado – barring a trip to the disabled list for Cespedes, who is dealing with a hamstring issue. A's manager Bob Melvin told reporters on Sunday that the Cuban slugger was available for pinch-hitting duties, which will likely be the case for all three games in Colorado. Given the expansive outfield and lack of the DH option, it's possible Cespedes will only be used as a pinch-hitter in decisive situations, although Melvin chose not to call on Cespedes in the ninth inning of the A's one-run loss to Arizona on Sunday.

Fortunately for the A's, the Rockies are one of the worst teams the club has faced this season. Rockies' manager Jim Tracy's club has really struggled to find a semblance of consistency in its starting rotation that has also dealt with injuries. Colorado has used 10 different starting pitchers that have combined to go 13-26 with a 6.17 ERA this year. The team is also missing star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who is on the 15-day DL with a strained left groin and won't be eligible to return this series. The Rockies have lost six of their last 10 after getting swept over the weekend by the Los Angeles Angels.

But the team does have former A's outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, who is having another outstanding season for the Rockies. He's one of the most productive players in all of baseball, boasting a 1014 OPS with 16 homers, 48 RBIs and nine stolen bases. After hitting just .242/.273/.361 in his one year with the A's before being traded, Gonzalez has a .313/.370/.567 slash line in his four years with the Rockies.

Colorado inked Gonzalez to a seven-year extension in the winter of 2011 that will be pay him $80 million through 2017.

The series kicks off Tuesday night with a pitching matchup of right-handers Bartolo Colon (5-6, 3.92) and Jeremy Guthrie (3-4, 6.35). Colon is coming off an outstanding outing against the Rangers in Oakland where he allowed just five hits in eight shutout innings. It was the first time he hadn't allowed a run since April 18, and the A's hope he's able to do more of the same in the hitter-friendly Coors Field.

Colon struggled in May, going 1-3 with a 7.92 ERA after having an ERA of just 2.86 in April. In his first two starts of June, he has allowed just two earned runs in 15 innings, lowering his mark for the year from 4.52 to 3.92. As a pitcher who's consistently in the strike zone, Colon's best indicator is the action he gets on his two-seam fastball. If he's unable to get bite on that pitch, he gets hit hard.

Guthrie has lost three of his last four starts, allowing 20 earned runs in 20.1 frames. Since being a first-round pick in the 2002 draft, the high-ceiling Stanford alum hasn't produced like many hoped. Originally drafted by Cleveland, he was picked up off waivers by Baltimore, where he became a staple in the team's starting rotation for five seasons.

Despite a plus fastball and repertoire of three off-speed pitches, Guthrie never took the next step and turned into an upper-echelon starter the Orioles believed he could be. In February, he was traded to Colorado for a pair of arms: Jason Hammel and Matt Lindstrom.

So far, the reclamation project hasn't worked out for the Rockies. Guthrie has allowed 37 hits in 23.1 innings at home with an 8.87 ERA.

The Rockies will send Alex White (2-4, 5.66) to the hill in Wednesday's game opposite Brandon McCarthy (5-3, 2.79). Another former first-round selection of the Indians, White has struggled with his new club since arriving last July as a part of the package that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland.

White is a power pitcher with a slider and he uses a split-finger fastball as his out-pitch. The right-hander started off 2012 with Triple-A Colorado Springs, where he posted a 1-3 record with a 2.92 ERA before being promoted May 8. He replaced Jhoulys Chacin after Chacin hit the DL with shoulder inflammation.

McCarthy won his first two decisions since returning to the starting rotation from the DL June 2. His last outing was a gem against Texas, allowing just a run on three hits in seven innings. The victory gave the lanky right-hander his fifth win in his last six starts.

The staff ace isn't quite far enough removed from his shoulder issues to have the club at ease, however. But if he maintains good health and consistent production before the July 31 trade deadline, McCarthy could be a very valuable trade chip to a contending club looking for a starting pitcher for the stretch run. That decision remains pretty far down the road for the A's, but has to be on their radar considering their history of selling high on veterans for prospects. The current landscape of the American League alone has many contending teams that could use the type of upgrade a healthy McCarthy represents.

Neither team has officially announced a starter for Thursday's series finale, but it's likely the A's will use lefty Tom Milone (6-5, 3.77) after his rough outing in Arizona on Friday when he allowed four runs in nine hits in five innings. Milone's struggles on the road continue with Thursday's potential start coming in another venue notorious for being tough of pitchers.

Locating his fastball will be key for the lefty, who has less margin for error given his lack of explosive pitches. When he's going well, he's able to locate his cutter and straight fastball to both sides of the plate. For whatever reason, that's been his biggest problem on the road, often missing location on fastball and leaving it out over the middle. His changeup is his best pitch, but loses effectiveness when he's not ahead in the count by way of good fastball location.

All signs point to Jeff Francis (0-1, 21.60) toeing the rubber for the Rockies on Thursday. The lefty started the season in the Cincinnati Reds organization before being released June 4 and singing as a free agent last Friday with the team that originally drafted him in the first round. He was the pitcher that Cespedes hit a homer off of in Cespedes' first spring training at-bat with the A's.

The left-hander struggled in his first start with his the club on Saturday, allowing eight runs in 3.1 innings to the Angels.

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