OAKLAND – It’s that ambiguous time of the major league season, when the contenders and pretenders have yet to really distinguish themselves in each division.
In case you haven’t noticed, however, there’s a pretty interesting dynamic going on in the American League West. The Seattle Mariners are proving to be a feisty bunch.
After beating the A’s for a second consecutive night Tuesday, 8-3, they are tied with Texas for second place and trail Oakland by just two games in the standings. That means if they can pull off a doubleheader sweep Wednesday at the Coliseum – does it really seem so far-fetched? – the Mariners can pull into a first-place tie atop the division.
Does the horse race in the win/loss column mean all that much in early May?
Not really. But it’s a sign that, just maybe, the A.L. West storyline might involve more than the A’s, Rangers and Los Angeles Angels throughout this season.
The A’s lost for the fourth time in five games Tuesday night. Their bats have fallen woefully silent, and Jim Johnson took a step backward in surrendering four ninth-inning runs, though manager Bob Melvin hardly seemed concerned about Johnson, who had strung together eight consecutive scoreless outings before Tuesday. Johnson’s night ended with him leaving to boos from the Coliseum crowd once again.
But to focus on the ninth inning Tuesday is to miss the point of what’s going on with the A’s. This team can’t buy a clutch hit right now, or at least not enough of them to sustain a decent rally.
Place at least some of that blame on a Mariners pitching staff that so far is holding up better than seemed possible. Seattle’s 3.72 team ERA ranks fourth in the American League, and considering the Mariners just got No. 2 starter Hisashi Iwakuma back from a finger injury that sidelined him the first five weeks of the season, their rotation stands a chance of continuing to improve.
On Tuesday, rookie left-hander Roenis Elias kept the A’s off-balance with 6 1/3 innings of five-hit ball. Back on April 3, Elias made his major league debut at the Coliseum and held Oakland to two hits over five innings.
“He’s got pretty good stuff,” A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said. “He’s got a good breaking ball, a little split-changeup thing that’s pretty good. … I just think we’re not getting timely hits that we’re normally accustomed to. But we got some guys on base tonight and didn’t cash it in.”
The A’s really could have helped themselves by bagging a victory Tuesday. Now they get Felix Hernandez in Wednesday afternoon’s opening game – the 2010 Cy Young winner who is undefeated in his past 10 starts at the Coliseum. He is the anti-C.J. Wilson, a pitcher who by all accounts loves pitching here. Hernandez is 9-2 with a 2.64 ERA lifetme at the A’s home park.
It’s up to right-hander Dan Straily to set the tone for Oakland by giving the A’s a quality start in the opener. Melvin had to burn through four relievers Tuesday, with Johnson (25 pitches) and Luke Gregerson (23) putting the heaviest toll on their arms.
Still, Melvin said he thinks his bullpen is in pretty good shape for the doubleheader.
Who he plans to start for the second game is still a mystery. Melvin said he’ll announce a plan before Wednesday’s opener, then said it could change depending on what happens in the first game. Given Straily’s vulnerability of late, it’s a possibility the A’s may have to turn to long man Drew Pomeranz in the opener, which would mean Arnold Leon would start Wednesday’s second game in his major league debut.
Who would have thought we’d see the day in 2014 where the Mariners seemed in better shape, pitching-wise, for a doubleheader than the A’s? But that’s the story in a division that’s unfolding in surprising fashion so far.