A’s have visions of Wild Card birth

Jul 17, 2001 3:18 AM

Coming out of spring training, the general consensus around baseball was that the Oakland A’s were prohibitive favorites to win the American League West. Of course, the Mariners got out of the gate incredibly fast and, going into Friday’s game, still had a 19 game lead over the A’s.

While that lead is virtually insurmountable, Oakland still has a chance to make this season a success, thanks to the Wild Card. The A’s have begun to play very well and, despite being six games behind the Red Sox and Indians, are looking like the favorites to win the fourth playoff spot.

April was awful for Oakland. The A’s went 8-17 that month, and had troubles pitching, hitting and playing defense. Tim Hudson was 2-3 with a 6.35 ERA, and the staff’s other young guns, Barry Zito and Mark Mulder, struggled with inconsistency. Oakland played better in May, before falling back again in June.

Since July began, the A’s have been as hot as the Vegas weather. They are 7-2 and have allowed just 26 runs in those games. Oakland was 10-3 over the last 13 games prior to last Friday’s slate, including an impressive sweep of the Diamondbacks in Arizona to end the first half.

In that series, Mulder, Hudson and Zito limited the Arizona offense to such an extent that the Diamondbacks scored just two runs in the entire series. Mulder was the most impressive, allowing the Diamondbacks just one hit in his shutout. He continued his fine pitching Thursday, in the first game of the second half, spinning a six-hit shutout of the Dodgers and improving his record to 10-6 with a 3.51 ERA.

After his dreadful start, Hudson is 9-5 with a 3.02 ERA. He hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in any of his starts since April 28, when he gave up seven runs in six innings to the Yankees. Zito has remained inconsistent, at 6-6 with an ERA over four and a half, but proved last year he has the stuff and makeup to pitch well in big games.

The A’s bullpen, a strength last year, has also been inconsistent. Jason Isringhausen has blown six of 23 save opportunities and may be available in the right deal, whether or not the A’s stay in the Wild Card race. Jim Mecir and Jeff Tam, almost automatic as middle-men in 2000, have been decent, but unspectacular. The A’s biggest problem this season hasn’t been their pitching. They still have a team ERA of under four, certainly good enough in the AL. The problem is hitting, except for Jason Giambi.

Many wondered how the A’s would cope with the new strike zone. At first glance, it seems Oakland was hindered by the higher zone. However, the A’s rank second in the AL in walks and have remained very patient. Oakland, though, ranks just eighth in runs scored. The blame for the team’s lack of production cannot be placed at the feet of one particular player, although Johnny Damon has been a huge disappointment. The blame goes to the cleanup hitters, batting just .193 with seven homers in the team’s 87 first half games.

Giambi’s performance Monday at the Home Run Derby had to open the eyes of everyone who didn’t know his greatness as a hitter. Giambi is the only full-time starter on the team with an average over .300. The first baseman also has a .458 on base percentage to go with his 19 homers and team-leading 60 RBI. The way the A’s play over the next few weeks should go a long way in deciding the 2000 AL MVP’s future.

If the A’s can stay in the Wild Card race, they will certainly hold on to Giambi, and try to re-sign him after the season. If they falter again, General Manager Billy Beane’s hand may be forced. Reports were that Giambi had agreed to a six year, $90 million contract before the season began, but the sides clashed when Giambi insisted on a no-trade clause. The A’s refused to budge and the offer was taken off the table last week.

Any team would love to have Giambi in the fold, and there would certainly be a tremendous amount of interest should he become available. Top candidates include the Yankees, who could give up Nick Johnson in the deal, or Atlanta with a number of outstanding prospects.

The thoughts of trading Giambi now are premature. To this point, the A’s have been a disappointment, but with the current playoff system, they are not nearly finished. This team won the AL West last year, and brought back the same team. Oakland is a year more experienced and adding Johnny Damon provided speed at the top of the lineup. With the Red Sox hurting and the Indians’ awful starting pitching, the A’s are peaking at just the right time. Don’t be shocked if they stay hot and make the Sox and Tribe sweat even more.