Oakland A's Notes: System Still Productive

Suzuki has been part of the Sac.-Oak. shuttle.

Before the season, numerous publications ranked the Oakland A's minor league system among the bottom half in major league baseball. The A's have made it a habit to defy expectations over the years, and the 2007 season is seemingly no different. While the A's Opening Day roster has been ravaged by injuries, the minor league system has kept the big league club afloat.

On Thursday, the Oakland A's finished off a tough road series win with an extra-innings thriller in Houston. The heroes of the game included a number of players who would have been found recently on the roster of the A's Triple-A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats.

After starter Chad Gaudin was able to last only 4.1 innings against the Astros, the A's bullpen stepped in and threw 6.2 shut-out innings to give Oakland a chance to win the game in 10 innings. That group of relievers included a number of recent River Cats: right-hander Colby Lewis, left-hander Ron Flores and right-hander Santiago Casilla.

Lewis, who was the River Cats' top starting pitcher at the beginning of the season, has been light's-out since being converted to relief after a poor first start versus the Chicago White Sox. Lewis has retired 21 consecutive batters and has not allowed a run since giving up 10 in that first start. He threw 1.1 perfect innings on Thursday.

Flores, a long-time River Cat, has also been effective since being promoted to Oakland. He has allowed only one run in 10 innings spread out over 12 appearances. He has six walks, but two were intentional. Flores has been shuttling back-and-forth between the A's bullpen and the River Cats bullpen in each of the last three seasons. For his major league career, the lefty has a 2.42 ERA in 48.1 innings.

Casilla may turn-out to be the story of the season if he continues to pitch like he has since his recall. The former top A's relief prospect had hit hard times since he revealed in 2005 that he was older than he had previously claimed (he also admitted that his name was not Jairo Garcia, as previously thought). After an inconsistent 2005 season with Sacramento and Oakland and an injury-plagued 2006 campaign, many viewed the 2007 season as Casilla's last real chance to make an impact in the big leagues. After a slow start in April for Sacramento, Casilla got hot in mid-May. He didn't allow a run in his last seven outings with the River Cats and put himself in a position to be recalled to the major leagues when the A's released Jay Witasick.

Since arriving in Oakland, Casilla has been nearly perfect. He hasn't allowed a run in eight outings, stretched over 10 innings. He has walked only two -- a good sign for a pitcher who has struggled with his control in prior big league stints -- and he has allowed only four hits. He also has eight strikeouts and has responded well in pressure-filled situations, saving two games and earning two wins. His first win and save came against the dangerous Boston Red Sox.

The contributions of the A's "minor league" relievers has been invaluable, as the team has had to cope with injuries to its top two relievers (Huston Street and Justin Duchscherer) and struggles from set-up man Kiko Calero. The A's have also had to move Chad Gaudin from the bullpen to the starting rotation thanks to injuries to Esteban Loaiza.

The A's minor league contributions have not been limited to the bullpen, however. Rookie Travis Buck has been one of the A's top offensive contributors when he has been in the line-up. His struggle to stay healthy may be the only thing keeping him from being a front-runner for AL Rookie of the Year right now. Buck has had both game-winning and game-tying hits, has ignited numerous game-winning rallies and has played surprisingly well on defense. For the season, the A's 2005 supplemental first round pick is batting .277/.374/.520. His slugging percentage is best on the team. Buck was originally scheduled to begin the year in Sacramento, but injuries to the A's outfield corps and a strong spring from Buck allowed him to make the jump from Double-A Midland to Oakland directly.

The A's have also seen the recent debut of top catching prospect Kurt Suzuki, and he has already made an impact despite not starting a game yet. On Tuesday in Houston, Suzuki came into the game late as a pinch-hitter. He didn't record a hit, but he made a terrific defensive play that helped push the game into extra-innings. On Thursday, Suzuki again entered the game late as a pinch-hitter. This time, he delivered a base-hit (his first major league hit) which set-up the game-winning hit by Jason Kendall. Suzuki was hitting .280 for the River Cats at the time of his promotion to Oakland. He is expected to start at catcher on Saturday versus the Cardinals.

Other A's call-ups from Sacramento this season have included Donnie Murphy, Hiram Bocachica (who had a homerun in an A's win), Danny Putnam (who filled in admirably in center and picked up his first major league homer and hit during his time with the A's), Dallas Braden (who picked up his first major league win) and Erasmo Ramirez.

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