Currently in position to capture a Wild Card berth in the American League, the Oakland A's are dealing with the transition from being a team playing with house money to suddenly dealing with the burden of expectations.
That tends to happen when a club makes the sudden jump from seven games back into the driver's seat for a date in the postseason in less than two months. Now, the hottest team in baseball - having won 17 of 20 games in July – must prove that the recent stretch is more than a coincidental hot streak and is instead an indication of things to come over the remaining two months of the regular season.
Oakland could go a little further in making that statement by winning a weekend series in Baltimore. The A's got off to a good start in their quest for a series win on Friday night with a stirring come-from-behind win over the O's. In yet another last at-bat victory, the A's scored six times in the top of the ninth to earn a 14-9 win. It wasn't an easy win, as the A's blew leads of 5-0 and 8-6 before overcoming a 9-8 deficit in the ninth. The A's win pushed the surprising Orioles to 2.5 games back in the chase for the Wild Card.
At 52-48, the Orioles appear to be a team that's played over its head as the season has gone on. The O's are in the lower third of baseball in most offensive categories with the exception of stats associated with power. Before Friday, they were averaging 1.23 homeruns per game, good for third in baseball, and were leaving just over three runners in scoring position, good for second.
The number that jumps off the page with Buck Showalter's team is the -58 run differential that usually finds a way to correlate with a team's record at the end of the year. For now, the team's record versus run differential can be explained by the 11-17 record in blowouts (scoring 129 runs and allowing 180) and 19-6 mark in one-run games.
For the A's, it's no coincidence that four hitters usually at the top of the lineup are having great Julys. Coco Crisp has turned around his awful start of the year to hit .359/.400/.594 this month. Jonny Gomes is hitting .344/.462/.531 while getting the majority of his at-bats in the No. 2 hole lately. And Josh Reddick is continuing his outstanding season with a 967 OPS this month.
Quietly, Yoenis Cespedes is becoming perhaps the second-best rookie in the American League behind the super-human Mike Trout with Cespedes' four home runs, 15 RBIs and 968 OPS in April through Thursday. The recent addition of rookie Chris Carter has also been a boost to the A's offense this month. Carter connected for his seventh homerun since being recalled to Oakland and his fifth homerun in July. Carter also keyed the ninth inning rally with a one-out single. He has 13 RBIs in 15 games this month and has been in the middle of several game-winning rallies.
A's pitching coach Curt Young's staff has been stellar as well in July. Before Friday's games, the staff had allowed just 2.72 earned runs per game despite having three rookies, a journeyman reliever and a 15-year veteran in the starting rotation. The last two games could be a sign of some wear-and-tear on the young staff, however, as the O's and Jays have scored a combined 19 runs off of A's pitchers the past two games.
Jarrod Parker allowed six runs in five innings on Friday night, although he was burned mostly by two homeruns. He struck-out eight and walked only one, while allowing eight hits. The bullpen was heavily used on Friday, however, as Jordan Norberto, Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Jerry Blevins all made appearances.
On Saturday, veteran Bartolo Colon (6-8, 3.97 ERA) goes against Tommy Hunter (4-5, 5.57 ERA). In Sunday's finale, Travis Blackley (3-2, 2.69 ERA) will square off against lefty Wei-Yin Chen (8-6, 3.82 ERA).