Lofty goals completely justified for Athletics
With strong pitching, anything short of success for Oakland is a surprise
MILWAUKEE -- Many baseball people will tell you that it takes 60 games to find out what kind of team you have on your hands.
Conveniently enough, the 2013 Oakland Athletics played their 60th game Tuesday night. A victory would have made them a .600 ballclub. Inconveniently, they had a rare bullpen letdown, and lost a late three-run lead and the game, 4-3, in 10 innings to the Milwaukee Brewers.
Still, they emerged with a 35-25 record, good for second place in the American League West, and the third-best overall mark in the league. Even with this loss, the A's are 15-3 over their last 18 games.
What this game might have illustrated on the downside is that this club does not have a lot of room for error. Six of those last 15 wins were one-run victories. Monday night's 10-2 victory aside, the A's are not going to be running up the score with great regularity.
Even if the A's are a distant third in their division in terms of national publicity, they remain defending AL West champions. They have a right to the highest possible aspirations and they have the pitching in quality and quantity to live up to those aspirations.
Manager Bob Melvin, asked if at this point in the season, he thought he was once again managing a postseason team, did not bite. Nor should he have bitten. But his assessment of the 2013 Athletics left plenty of room for optimism and general growth.
"Look, based on what we did last year, we came into this year thinking that we have a good chance to go to the postseason," Melvin said. "That is our goal and that is what we expect out of our team. I don't want to be one of those guys out there saying, 'We are a postseason team,' making any proclamations.
"We're playing very well right now. And I think what we do well is keep in the moment. We don't get too far ahead of ourselves. As long as we play to this capacity, I think we're in good shape.
"We certainly mix and match depending on righty lineup or lefty lineup, get your matchups, get your guys some rest, keep them healthy over the course of the season. That's the way [general manager] Billy [Beane] set up the team and that's the way we're playing it right now. We're going back and forth a little bit with the offense, but even when we're not swinging, we're making pitchers work, we're taking our walks, we're getting into, sometimes, the underbellies of some bullpens when we can get into the bullpen earlier in the game."
The A's pitching has been so formidable over the last three weeks that a breakdown in the pitching plan seemed to be more shocking than anything else. Against Milwaukee on Tuesday night, starter A.J. Griffin was in charge for seven shutout innings. With Yoenis Cespedes supplying three runs with two laser-shot homers, Oakland's 3-0 lead going into the eighth seemed larger than that.
But the Brewers came up with three straight hits off lefty reliever Sean Doolittle, who had been virtually untouchable earlier in the season but has been hit in his last three appearances.
"He's having to deal for the first time in his career with being hit and it's a different feeling for him," Melvin said. "But he's got to fight his way out of it."
Doolittle didn't sound like a man looking for an exit.
"The frustrating part about it is that I feel great, my preparation has been very crisp and clean," he said. "I was ready to go, champing at the bit, ready to get into that game. The conviction is there behind every single pitch. I want to get into the game. I want to throw through this."
Griffin, after an excellent night of work, could reasonably look to the bullpen for a routine happy end to the game.
"You always feel good coming out of the game, especially when you get through seven and you've got a lead and you've got those guys sitting out there waiting to shut the door," Griffin said. "Unfortunately, we couldn't do that today, but we have all the confidence in the world in those guys. They always get the job done. Today was kind of a fluky day, you know.
"But I'm sure Doo will be out there tomorrow striking out the side. When you expect a guy to strike out the side every time, it's surprising when he gives up a couple runs."
That's the kind of club that the Oakland A's are, 60 games into the 2013 season. Failure seems fluky. In fact, anything short of success seems like a surprise. With this outlook, and this pitching, the A's have earned the right to look at lofty goals as being completely within reason.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.