An F for the A's
Touted as a contender, awful Oakland is in danger of falling out of the playoff picture
What can a team do when it finishes the season's first month buried deep in a divisional hole? For the A's, who trailed the red-hot Mariners by 12 games in the American League West on May 1, the answer is: not much. "Just because we started 8-18 doesn't mean we all of a sudden have $90 million to spend to fix it," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane, whose $33.8 million Opening Day payroll was the second smallest in the majors. Beane says the A's remain committed to the team that was assembled for this season and are planning no drastic changes. "We have no choice," he says.
There's hope for last-place Oakland—since 1969 eight teams have rebounded from double-digit deficits to win their divisions—and the A's lot did begin to improve slightly last week. They pieced together their first three-game win streak of the season by taking two from the Blue Jays and then the opener of a three-game series from the Red Sox. That victory over Boston last Friday, coupled with the Mariners' loss to Toronto, shaved Oakland's deficit in the American League West to 11 games; that marked the first time the A's had gained ground since the second game of the season. At week's end Oakland was 11-20, again 12 games behind Seattle.
Explaining why the A's, preseason favorites to win the West, fell on their faces out of the gate is easy. "We didn't play any particular part of the game very well," says Beane. Through Sunday the Oakland starters had a 5.41 ERA, second-worst in the league. Righthanded reliever Jim Mecir, a much-relied-upon cog during the A's run to the division crown late last season, went 0-4 in his first six appearances. Timely hitting had been all too rare: Oakland was batting .213 with runners in scoring position, second-worst in the majors. Newly acquired leftfielder Johnny Damon, who was expected to spur the offense with speed and aggressiveness, had struggled, hitting .204 with only six extra base hits and a meager .259 on-base percentage. " Damon has been a disaster," says one American League scout. "He looks like he's pressing really, really hard."
Aware that several teammates were similarly tense, first baseman and clubhouse leader Jason Giambi (one of the A's few bright spots, with a .320 average, six home runs and 20 RBIs) called a players-only meeting before last Friday's win. He pointed out ways in which Oakland had hurt itself. "Perfect example: We've got guys in scoring position, and [ Toronto closer] Billy Koch throws a couple up around Miggy's [shortstop Miguel Tejada] helmet, and he's swinging," Giambi said the day before the meeting, after the A's beat the Blue Jays in 15 innings. "The guy throws 100 mph; you don't need to help him out. That's when you've got to tone yourself down even more."
Oakland has also learned that last season's winning formula—men getting on base by working out walks and then waiting for someone to hit a home run—may not be as effective this year. "You have to be able to do the little things to put a winning streak together," manager Art Howe says. "You can't just hit balls out of the ballpark all the time."
Still, the A's best chance of climbing back into the West Division race rests with its pitching staff, which showed signs last week of rebounding from a dismal start. Oakland had a 2.95 team ERA in its first six games this month. "Our starters have been better the last couple starts," Beane said last Friday. "If they're there, we'll always have a shot."
Look Who's Starting Strong
As a minor leaguer, Doug Mientkiewicz won a batting title at Class AA New Britain in 1998 and twice led his league in doubles, but last season those feats seemed like distant memories. Mientkiewicz was playing for the Triple A Salt Lake Buzz, having been banished to the minors after having hit .229 with only two home runs in 327 at bats as a 26-year-old rookie with the Twins the previous season. The demotion sparked an epiphany: After having spent his career working counts, searching for perfect pitches to hit, Mientkiewicz decided it was time to be more aggressive at the plate. "In the minors, you get pitched around a lot," he told the Minneapolis Star Tribune last week. "Up here, they throw first-pitch strikes."
Determined to return to the majors and urged to "swing the bat" by no less an authority than Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, Mientkiewicz did just that, batting .334 for Salt Lake and making a name for himself as a hero of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. That success has carried over to this season. Through Sunday the most surprising member of baseball's most surprising team was second in the American League in hitting (.404) and third in slugging percentage (.681). He also led the Twins in home runs (six) and RBIs (26) and had played sparkling defense at first base, with only one error.