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4/26/2007 10:07:00 AM

AL West: How Do They Do It?

Dan Haren
Dan Haren leads the AL in ERA (1.41).
By Gennaro Filice

We're almost a month into the 2007 season, and I have one resounding AL West question: How in the name of Justin Duchscherer (just call him "Duke" -- it's much easier) are the A's in first place?

To explain this inquiry a bit further, let's review what's transpired since last season ended:

  • In November, Oakland had its most potent hitter, Frank Thomas (39 home runs, 114 RBIs in 2006), walk out the door via free agency.

  • One month later, the A's suffered the same plight with No. 1 pitcher Barry Zito (102-63 record, 3.55 ERA over seven season in Oakland).

  • Just weeks before opening day, Mark Kotsay went under the knife to repair a herniated disk in his lower back, putting the stellar defender and top-of-the-lineup bat out of commission for up to three months.

  • Veteran starter Esteban Loaiza and potential starting first baseman Dan Johnson both started the season on the disabled list (Loaiza still hasn't come back, while Johnson just returned to the roster yesterday).

  • On Tuesday, the A's sent star pitcher Rich Harden and No.3 hitter Milton Bradley to familiar territory: the DL. Later that night, Nick Swisher pulled up lame with a strained hamstring and didn't play yesterday.

  • To add insult to injury (literally), A's pitcher Brad Halsey is ripping the franchise from the Triple-A Sacramento, calling Oakland a "mom and-pop organization."

  • Once again -- how are the A's in first? Almost a month into the season, Oakland's offensive production has been nothing short of pathetic. The A's are last in the majors in batting average (.228) and slugging percentage (.340), and last in the AL in hitting with runners in scoring position (.221). The bullpen has been horrendous as well, posting a 5.22 ERA.

    But for all the personnel losses, injuries, drama and offensive woes, the A's have excelled in quite possibly the most important aspects of the game: starting pitching and defense. Leading the majors in starter ERA (.207), Oakland has had 19 straight starters give up three runs or fewer (an A's record), with seven of the last nine yielding one run or fewer. Also, Wednesday night marked the 21st straight game in which the A's held their opponent scoreless in the first inning, an ongoing major league record to start the season. The glovework has been there, too: Oakland has an outstanding defensive efficiency rating (turning balls in play into outs) of .733.

    The leader of the rotation thus far has been Dan Haren. Haren entered this year surrounded by breakout buzz, and through five starts he leads the AL in ERA (1.41). The A's have also received solid performances from Joe Blanton, Joe Kennedy and especially Rich Harden, who had the second lowest ERA in the league (1.42) before heading to the DL.

    But the most pleasant surprise has been the performances of two youngsters thrust into the starting rotation. Filling in for Loaiza, Chad Gaudin has been brilliant. Coming off a solid '06 campaign out of the 'pen, the 24-year-old Gaudin has posted a 1.85 ERA over four starts. After Harden was placed on the DL, the A's called up Dallas Braden to start Tuesday. In his major league debut, the 23-year-old rode his screwball and baffled the Orioles over six innings to the tune of three hits, one run and six strikeouts.

    As Huston Street recently told The Oakland Tribune, "Every team has injuries, but who steps in for those injuries? We have guys with the ability to step in and get it done. That's the reason for our success."

    Granted, the A's record is just 11-10 and they are actually tied for first place with the Angels -- another team that has struggled with injuries in the early going. But the fact that Oakland holds an early share of the AL West lead after all it has been through should frighten the rest of the division. It's no secret that the A's are a second-half team; their .634 winning percentage (376-217) after the All-Star break since 1990 is tops in baseball. If Oakland finds itself atop the division at the break (the A's achieved this last season for the first time since 1990), watch out.

  • A day after having their sixth season of the game postponed by weather on Tuesday, the Mariners snapped a 10-game losing streak in Oakland last night with a gem from Jarrod Washburn. But, of course, all Mariner talk still centers around the health of "King Felix." The good folks at Detect-O-Vision provide an interesting take, claiming that Hernandez's recent injury is actually a testament to his "safe" mechanics.

  • In Wednesday night's 11-inning loss to the Indians, Texas hitters set an inauspicious team record, striking out 19 times. Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson each donned the "Golden Sombrero," while Nelson Cruz struck out three times. The only Texas starter not to get mowed down at least once? Sammy Sosa, who ranks second all-time in career strikeouts behind Reggie Jackson with 2,209. Sosa actually went 2-4 with three RBIs.

  • Following a 9-1 win over the Devil Rays, the Angels called up SS Brandon Wood. Wood become one of the most hyped prospects in baseball after an amazing 2005 season for Rancho Cucamonga (hitting .321 with 43 homers, 53 doubles, 116 RBIs and 110 runs). But manager Mike Scioscia said the kid could be headed back down on Monday, when the Angels activate Chone Figgins. "It's probably a short-term thing, but you never know," Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times.
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