At 41-42, the A's would get back to .500 with a series win over Seattle at home and would continue to provide hope for a club that didn't appear to have much headed into the season. While they still have limitations offensively, they've gotten contributions from a list of unlikely candidates that has continued to grow as the season has progressed. But it's been the pitching and defense that's allowed the team to have success while flying under the radar.
Those qualities were apparent in the team's three-game sweep of Boston, a team in competition for the wild card. Jarrod Parker, Bartolo Colon and A.J. Griffin all had solid outings against one of the better offenses in the American League, while hitters such as Brandon Moss and Chris Carter got key hits in decisive situations.
The starting pitching staff has allowed one earned run or fewer in the last six games – tying a team record – en route to the American League's best ERA of 3.44, a remarkable number considering the staff is without 2011 contributors Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden. Instead, pitching coach Curt Young has managed a patchwork staff comprised of talented, young arms.
At the plate, the power-starved A's have now homered in 15-straight games. They are 9-6 in that span.
As always, sustainability remains the key question when looking at upstart teams that find themselves in contention before summer's dog days hit. A starting rotation featuring three rookies, an oft-injured ace and a 39-year-old tipping the scale at upwards of 260 pounds has a tough time passing the eye test – especially considering it has to carry an offense that's last in the AL in runs and hits.
But on the other side of the coin, the law of averages says the A's lineup is likely to improve on its 2012 slash line of .225/.302/.368. Jemile Weeks' season has not lived up to expectations after hitting .303 as a rookie last year, but it wouldn't be a surprise if his clip got significantly better from .215 in the second half.
Coco Crisp has already proven his struggles from the first two-and-half months of the season are well behind him. In his 19 games since he was put back in the leadoff spot, he has hit .333/.402/.472 while the team's gone 13-6. Crisp is likely garnering interest on the trade market, but he's been one of the team's most important position players during its recent surge.
Whether to trade players will be a very tough decision for the A's. The decision should become clearer as July progresses when the A's play Texas, New York, Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay before the trading deadline.
Moving Crisp would give the A's a modest return at best and be in-line with the club's thinking over the last few seasons. But the A's don't have much to lose by keeping Crisp. If he were able to offset his terrible start to the season by continuing his catalyzing play atop the lineup, keeping things intact would show the rest of the team that management is serious about winning games and not just building for the future.
If Oakland keeps Crisp and doesn't make the playoffs, the team can still trade him in the offseason.
The same can be said for Grant Balfour. Since May 10, the A's former closer has been outstanding in his return to setup duty. In that stretch, he has a 2.45 ERA, allowing just 13 hits in 25.1 innings. Balfour might the piece most talked about in trade discussion with other teams, but without another proven setup man from the right side in the bullpen, the A's might want to keep him for the stretch run. He has a $4.5 million option for next season.
The A's must avoid a letdown against Seattle in order to legitimize the sweep of Boston. Beating the Red Sox in three-straight would mean much less if the team were to stumble over the weekend against one of the AL's worst teams. After the All-Star break next week, the team travels to Minnesota and has the opportunity to get a few games above .500 before returning home to face the Rangers and Yankees.
The A's will send Tom Milone (8-6, 3.73), who is coming off a tough outing in Texas last Saturday, to the hill Friday. The left-hander threw well, but was a victim of poor defense in the fifth inning that led to five unearned runs. The Rangers ended up winning the game, 7-2.
In his previous start in Seattle, however, Milone was outstanding. He threw seven shutout innings in his best road performance of the season. The A's are hoping his road struggles are behind him and the rookie has made all the adjustments necessary to pitch well away from Oakland.
He'll take on righty Kevin Milwood (3-6, 4.00), who left his last start against the A's early due to a groin issue. The 16-year veteran has had to leave two games this season because of groin issues and was skipped in rotation last weekend to help recover.
A key to facing Milwood this year is getting him in the stretch. With the bases empty, teams are hitting .218/.275/.290. With runners aboard, they are hitting .299/.391/.345. There's a strong possibility the decrease in effectiveness out of the stretch could have something to do with his groin injury, as he has been dealing with for a majority of the season.
Jarrod Parker (5-3, 2.46) goes Saturday against Jason Vargas (7-7, 4.31). Vargas, a left-hander, got a no-decision in his last outing against Boston when he allowed one run in eight innings. He struck out 10 A's hitters two starts ago over just 6.2 innings while allowing a pair of runs. He didn't get the decision, but his team eventually overtook the A's in the eighth when Brendan Ryan drove in the decisive run to give the Mariners the 3-2 win.
Vargas will be making his fourth start of the year against the A's. He has pitched very well so far, allowing just 10 hits in 18.1 innings with 16 strike-outs. But over his career, his numbers in Oakland decline pretty significantly. He's just 1-3 in five starts at the Coliseum with a 3.98 ERA.
After his latest start against Boston on Monday, Parker became the first pitcher since 1917 to allow one run or less in 10 of his first 14 career starts. The A's knew they were getting a good pitcher when they obtained him in the Cahill trade, but no one could have predicted he would have started out this well with his new team.
Like Milone, Parker's numbers are significantly better when he pitches in Oakland. The right-hander has a home ERA of 1.36 compared to a 3.74 mark on the road.
Parker hasn't lost a decision since June 9 and has allowed just 34 hits in his last 52.2 innings. If there is a chink in his armor, it's his walk rate, which is still well above four per nine innings. But he's made up for it by pitching well with runners on base.
Sunday's first-half finale will feature two Cy Young Award-winning right-handers when Bartolo Colon (6-7, 4.05) squares off against Felix Hernandez (6-5, 3.26).
Colon is coming off of a solid outing against the Red Sox when he allowed just one earned run in six innings before the A's went on to win in the ninth when Crisp drove in Cliff Pennington with a sacrifice fly.
Making his early return from an oblique injury that sent him to the 15-day disabled list, Colon was efficient with his fastball use and allowed just five hits over 87 pitches. It's likely the right-hander will be on a similar pitch restriction to avoid stressing his oblique before the All-Star break.
Colon is a trade chip the A's might consider moving. Last year, Colon got off to a great start with the Yankees but fizzled out as the season wore on. After the All-Star break, his ERA jumped from 3.28 to 4.96 while he missed time due to a hamstring injury.
With an arm in the minors such as Dan Straily ready for a potential promotion, there might not be the same type of drop-off that would accompany a Balfour or Crisp trade. In addition, the A's may be looking to find room to keep Griffin in the big league rotation when McCarthy returns from his DL stint.
Hernandez is coming off a 5.1 inning, four-run performance in which he struck out eight Baltimore Orioles. In his three starts prior, the righty allowed just two earned runs in 23 innings. In his last outing in Oakland back on April 7, he allowed six runs in 6.1 innings, but still earned the win as Colon allowed seven runs in just 4.1 innings.