The Oakland A's went 19-5 in July to gain 9.5 games in the standings on the Texas Rangers and earn a loose grip on one of the two Wild Card spots. Before the upcoming four-game series against Toronto, they find themselves 1.5 games ahead of Detroit, Tampa Bay and Baltimore for the second wild card berth.
While the A's made it to the ball, they're still hoping midnight doesn't strike any time soon, turning their carriage back into a pumpkin. In other words, they're hoping to avoid reverting to the mean.
After all, the A's owned one of baseball's worst offenses during the first two months of the year. In June, the A's finished sixth in the league in runs scored (133), seventh in team OPS (751) and fourth in homers (34). That continued into July, when the A's were once again fourth in the majors in home runs (36), seventh in runs scored (117) and had a team OPS of 749 (eighth-best). Those two months have brought the team OPS up to 685, which still has them tied for second-worst in the league.
Is Chris Carter going to keep up his 965 OPS-pace after putting up an 880 OPS in his four seasons in Triple-A? He has adjusted well since his June 29 promotion. But as his sample size grows, pitchers will pitch to his weaknesses more and his numbers should come back down to some extent.
Yoenis Cespedes put together an outstanding couple of months after a modest start to his major league career. In June and July, he combined to hit .344 and hit nine of his 14 home runs. He has been Oakland's best player during that same span, leading the team with 34 RBIs. Will he continue to be one of the league's best hitters over the remaining two months of the season? Time will tell, but the A's will have trouble winning games without getting the same type of production from their highest-paid player.
On the mound, Oakland's staff put up a 3.14 ERA and 4.4 WAR for the month of July, good for fifth and fourth in the majors, respectively. Those stats are marginally better than their collective numbers for the season. But four members of the starting pitching staff have never been in the major leagues in August (including the newest rotation member, Dan Straily) and could be due for some regression in the summer's dog days.
Rookie Jarrod Parker has given up three runs or more in four of his last five starts after doing so twice in his previous 13. Fellow rookie Tom Milone has allowed 10 earned runs in his last 13 innings after allowing just five in his previous 41 frames.
But reinforcements are coming. According to numerous online reports, including a Tweet from Straily's player agent, Straily is set to make his major league debut in Oakland for Friday's second game of the series against the Blue Jays. The hard throwing right-hander leads all of professional baseball in strikeouts (major leagues included) and has made a meteoric rise through the A's system this year. Between Double-A and Triple-A, Straily has struck out 175 hitters in just 138.1 innings. Another few starts for the River Cats and he might have reached the 200 strike-out mark, which is a rare feat for minor league pitchers.
A 2009 24th-round draft selection by the A's, Straily will be the first Marshall University alum to play in the major leagues since Rick Reed. Straily owned a solid, if not spectacular, minor league record coming into this season. Always a strike-out pitcher, Straily had 369 strike-outs in 367.2 innings from 2009-2011. (For a complete archive of coverage of Straily from the start of his professional career, click here.) But this year he has blown that pace out of the water while also holding opposing batters to a .197 average and posting a 2.60 ERA.
Other reinforcements will come off of the A's disabled list. On the injury front, top of the rotation starters Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson are set to make rehab appearances with Triple-A Sacramento over the weekend. McCarthy, dealing with a shoulder issue that has hampered him throughout his two seasons with the A's, will likely make his last rehab appearance before rejoining the rotation next week.
Anderson is still recovering from Tommy John surgery and should throw up to 75 pitches on Sunday. In his last outing with the River Cats, he allowed two runs in four innings, making 73 pitches.
The timetable on Anderson's return is still up in the air. But given the his rapid progression through his rehab, he could only need a few more starts to get his pitch count back up before rejoining the big leagues. The talented lefty is just over a year removed from his tendon replacement procedure and could provide some veteran leadership to the A's rookie-filled starting rotation.
Thursday's first game will see the lone veteran of the A's current staff, Bartolo Colon (7-8, 3.78 ERA), take on Toronto's Henderson Alvarez (7-7, 4.43 ERA). Colon last pitched Saturday in Baltimore, throwing 5.2 shutout innings and earning his first win since June 12. Colon had fared well against the Orioles throughout his long career, lowering his ERA to 3.10 against them.
The right-hander has a 9-5 record against the Blue Jays over his 15-year career, although his 4.35 ERA might not reflect in that mark. Colon is looking to win in back-to-back starts, something he's done just twice this year: on June 6 and 12, and back on April 13 and 18.
The A's missed Alvarez during their recent trip to Toronto. But he did make his major league debut against Oakland on August 10 of last season, allowing three runs in 5.2 innings while striking out four. The right-hander has a plus fastball, but might be in the strike zone too often. He's allowed 142 hits in 126 innings. His strike-out numbers aren't great given the good velocity he has on his fastball, but he's shown decent control, walking a little more than two hitters per nine innings.
Although it hasn't been officially announced, Straily is set to toe the rubber for Oakland for the first time on Friday, taking Travis Blackley's spot in the rotation. It's likely relievers Jim Miller or Evan Scribner will be optioned back to Sacramento to make room for Blackley so he can resume his long relief role out of the bullpen.
Straily came into the season as a relative unknown (he was this site's 43rd-best A's prospect coming into this season), but has turned himself into one of the A's most prized prospects. His emergence is likely one of the reasons the A's elected to stand pat at the trading deadline, as it was reported numerous teams were interested in acquiring him for in exchange for veteran help.
But the A's brass felt strongly enough about baseball's leader in strikeouts to sit tight and see if he could become another one of the A's player development success stories. Straily features a 90-93 MPH fastball, slider and curve. But his best off-speed pitch is his change-up.
The 23-year-old will be opposed by southpaw Brett Cecil (2-4, 5.56). Cecil pitched against the A's when they were in Toronto last Tuesday, allowing two runs on five hits in six innings. He ended up with the loss after the A's put up five runs in the seventh inning, highlighted by Cespedes' three-run single.
Cecil will be looking to snap a three-game losing streak that has ironically lowered his ERA from 6.34. The 26-year-old has is 2-3 with a 2.83 ERA in his career against the A's, allowing just 24 hits in 35 innings.
Blue Jays manager John Farrell will send struggling lefty Ricky Romero (8-8, 5.69 ERA) to the hill on Saturday. The A's will counter with rookie - and former minor league roommate of Straily – A.J. Griffin (3-0, 2.51). Romero is having an uncharacteristically down season after posting a 3.73 ERA in 2010 and just a 2.92 ERA a season ago.
Romero has lost his last seven starts. But it should be pointed out that his offense failed to score in four of those games and scored just eight runs during the span of his losses. Romero has walked hitters at the worst rate of his four-year career this season (4.86 per nine innings) and has allowed nearly 17 percent of his fly balls to leave the park.
Griffin has thrown a quality start in all seven of his major league outings since joining the A's in late-June. His stuff is far from overpowering, but his curveball is so big and slow, and major league hitters have had a hard time making adjustments. The right-handers 3.66 FIP contrasts with very low ERA, signaling he might be in store for some regression.
In his last start against the Rays in Oakland, Griffin allowed 13 fly balls – many of which would have gone for extra-base hits in other ballparks. But his best outing of the season came last week when the A's were in Toronto, and he struck out a career-best nine hitters and allowed just three hits in six shutout innings.
The last game of the long, four-game set on Sunday will feature a rematch of lefties Milone (9-8, 3.68) and Aaron Laffey (2-2, 4.20). Milone's most recent start was his worst in the Coliseum to date. He allowed five runs in seven innings to the Rays, marking the first time in his career he's lost consecutive starts.
Milone is a strike-throwing machine, but must walk a fine line given his lack of explosive stuff. When he can't locate his fastball on the edges of the strike zone, it's almost impossible for him to be successful.
Milone suffered a loss last week in Toronto, when he was victim to Edwin Encarnacion's three-run homer and a two-run sixth inning that involved an RBI bunt single and throwing error. In the same game, Laffey allowed four runs on five hits in his no-decision before his team got the win. This year is the first Laffey has been a starter since 2010, when he was with Cleveland. He pitched exclusively in relief last season with the Mariners and Yankees before coming to Toronto in the offseason.