The last time the Oakland A's visited the Kansas City Royals in early June, the A's were on the heels of an eight-game losing streak and sat in last place in the American League West. Now the A's return just a half game out of the Wild Card race, looking to rebound from a disappointing series loss to the White Sox in Chicago and regain momentum for the stretch run toward the playoffs.
It has been quite the turnaround for Oakland. The club has relied on a bevy of contributions from unlikely sources. That trend might need to continue with Tuesday's announcement that Brandon Inge will be put on the disabled list after dislocating his shoulder in Chicago. Josh Donaldson, looking for redemption after struggling in the big leagues earlier this season, gets the call from Triple-A Sacramento as his replacement.
In his previous two stints with the A's, Donaldson hit just .153/.160/.235 in 28 games. His eagerness to produce was exemplified by his impatience at the plate. He struck out in 26 percent of his at-bats, while walking just once in 100 plate appearances.
But there could be reason for optimism for his most recent promotion. The third baseman/catcher has hit very well in Triple-A, putting together a .335/.402/.598 slash line with 13 home runs in 51 games. Those numbers are much better than he's had in his previous two seasons in the Pacific Coast League. He has shown some of the patience he displayed with Double-A Midland in 2009, when he was among the leaders in the organization in walks.
Brandon Moss and Chris Carter are two examples of players who were able to improve their approaches and become productive major leaguers. Could Donaldson be next? That depends on whether or not Donaldson is able to maintain the approach that made him successful in Triple-A.
Sunday's starter at third base, Adam Rosales, figures to get some playing time at third base in Inge's absence, as well. Rosales has hit well in his last five games in the starting lineup, going 6-for-15 with a pair of home runs.
Inge will be tough to replace, both with the glove and at the plate. While his basic numbers might not have appeared very good, Inge has been a very valuable member of the A's lineup. He's getting on-base at a .285 clip, but has been able to drive in 50 runs in 73 games since arriving from Detroit earlier in the year. He has also played very well at third defensively.
The Royals will be returning home after a successful seven-game road trip where they took two-of-three from the White Sox and split a four-game series with Baltimore. But the club still owns the worst record in the AL – a half game below the Minnesota Twins.
Kansas City has now homered in eight-consecutive games and lead baseball with 15 long balls over the same span. The last time the A's and Royals squared off at Kauffman Stadium, the Royals took two of three, although the A's are a much different team now then back in June.
Parker's turn in the rotation was skipped over the weekend and the right-hander hasn't thrown in a game since August 6, giving him a full week of rest. The rookie has shown that he needed it, having allowed 13 runs in his last 17.2 innings. He'll be making his first career start against the Royals. On the road, his ERA is nearly two points higher than at home, with a 4.27 mark compared to 2.40.
If the A's are going to stay in contention the rest of the way, they're going to need Parker to rebound from his tough stretch. He was outstanding in June and in parts of July, coinciding with the A's run up the American League ladder. Although the A's have improved considerably at the plate as a team (they rank sixth since the All-Star break in team OPS), they are still very reliant on run prevention and must continue to get quality starting pitching to remain in the race.
Guthrie started the season with Colorado, but was one of the Rockies many starting pitchers who struggled this season. He went 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA with the Rockies, allowing hitters a .324 average and 1.69 WHIP. His numbers have improved with the Royals with hitters hitting at a .280 clip and he has a 1.27 WHIP. The A's have seen plenty of Guthrie over the years during his time in the AL with Baltimore and Cleveland. He allowed seven runs in five innings in a start against the A's while he was with Colorado earlier this season.
Wednesday's contest will see Kansas City's Will Smith (3-4, 5.48 ERA) take on A's veteran Brandon McCarthy (6-3, 2.68 ERA). Smith, pitching in his rookie year, is coming off a solid outing in Baltimore where he allowed two runs in seven innings with five punch-outs. The left-hander throws predominantly fastballs, relies heavily on his control and pitches to contact, evident by his low strikeout numbers.
McCarthy will be making his second start since returning from the disabled list during the White Sox series. He threw well, but gave up three home runs in Chicago's hitter-friendly ballpark before the A's ended up losing the game on a walk-off home run from Jordan Danks. McCarthy earned a no-decision in that game.
McCarthy might be Oakland's most important starting pitcher the rest of the way given the way the rotation has rounded out during the season. A.J. Griffin's shoulder injury gives the A's one less option should McCarthy's bothersome shoulder flare up at any point.
Brett Anderson appears to be only a couple starts with Triple-A Sacramento away from rejoining the team, although it's usually tough to gauge how effective a pitcher can be in his first year removed from Tommy John surgery. When healthy, McCarthy has proven to be one of the club's most reliable starters and a stabilizing force on a young pitching staff. Should he go down again, the club will be putting a lot of pressure on Anderson and Bartolo Colon – whose recent history in the season's second half isn't very good – to carry the load for the rotation.
Thursday's series finale will feature A's rookie Dan Straily (0-0, 5.06 ERA) and KC right-hander Luke Hochevar (7-10, 5.32 ERA). Straily will be making the third start of his major league career and remains in search of his first big league win. The right-hander is coming off a rough start against the Angels, during which he allowed five runs in 4.2 innings. All of the runs came via four home runs.
Although Straily has made only two starts for the A's, it's pretty clear he won't be striking out hitters at the same monstrous rate he did in the minor leagues. He has a plus slider and changeup paired with a sneaky fastball, but doesn't have the type of stuff that typically translates to a lot of strikeouts at the big league level.
Straily has induced just eight ground balls in his first two starts, with only three coming off Angels' bats. That number will need to improve, and should once he's able to command his pitches down in the zone as he did in the minors. Nerves may have contributed to his lack of command during his first two outings.
Now in his sixth major league season, Hochevar is having his worst season since 2009. As the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, the right-hander hasn't quite lived up to that billing in his career with the Royals. But he still has good stuff and deep repertoire of pitches. The A's roughed him up back on June 2, scoring six runs in 4.1 innings on just five hits.
Hochevar has struggled in his last four starts, allowing 27 hits in 20.1 innings and a 7.52 ERA. His most recent start came in Baltimore, where he yielded seven runs on seven hits in 5.1 innings.