In 2012, the Oakland Athletics were a Bernie Leanin,' pie-slinging, power-hitting, precision-pitching, group of goofballs that couldn't be contained. Have they lost that special feeling? Because, lately it seems like it's gone.
The A's have lost four games in a row and eight of their last nine games. After a 7-3 loss to the Orioles in front of a packed house of 31,292, it is clear the A's have several issues. While there's no simple answer for why the pitching is struggling, or why they can't find a shutdown inning, or why they can't buy a timely hit lately, it was pretty easy to point a finger at one problem in particular.
The fun is gone.
"What makes us good is playing loose and not pressing," starting pitcher A.J. Griffin said in a quiet clubhouse. "Just going out there and having fun and playing baseball."
It's easy to identify, but it's difficult to solve. It's impossible to have a good time when the team is losing. Having Stomper make balloon animals in the clubhouse, or having a player dress in a superhero costume won't exactly vibe when the team is in a rut like this.
There's only one way to fix the problem.
"It's just one of those things where losing doesn't bring joy," Donaldson said. "We need to start getting on the winning side of things again to have fun. You can go out there and be as loose as you want, but when it's crunch time if you're not going to be yourself, if you're going to let the situation dictate you, then it's probably not going to be a very positive experience for anybody."
If you can't win without the fun, and you can't have fun without winning, there's only one way to fix things. Relax.
"I think every body is just trying a little too hard right now regardless," A's manager Bob Melvin said.
One thing is certain, it's fun to watch Yoenis Cespedes blast tape-measure home runs into the stands. That's one ingredient that makes everyone happy, and it will be added to the equation on Sunday, when he is eligible to return from the disabled list after a left hand injury forced him to miss 15 days.
With Cespedes back in the lineup and manning left field, the rest of the team can calm down and stop pressing. Even when Cespedes isn't crushing the ball, he's impacting the lineup because the other A's players don't feel like they have to be the guy being counted on to win the game in every plate appearance. Once the weight is lifted from their shoulders, they can do what they do best and string together hits and runs and wins.
"Cespedes is one of the best players on this team, so that's definitely going to bode well for us as a team in general," Donaldson said. "I think we are going to get better right away with him coming back."
It is well known that the A's are much better with Cespedes around. Since the Cuban-born slugger joined the team, they are 90-48.
In theory, Cespedes can't fix the pitching, but a good lineup leads to a happy pitching staff. A happy pitching staff leads to a confident unit. That leads to less pressure to pitch perfectly when the team actually does score a run and get a lead. Maybe that's the solution to the shutdown inning problem.
In four of the A's last six losses they have taken the lead only to give it right back.
"I don't know if it's a coincidence or if guys are putting a little too much pressure on themselves once we do score," Melvin said. "Once it happens several times human nature would suggest that you're thinking about that and you want to be the guy that shuts it down."
The A's are battling and they aren't getting the results they desire. It was different last season when no one outside of the organization expected them to do much of anything. Now they are the defending division champions and the front office went for it in the offseason and sacrificed prospects to stack the big league roster.
Winning is expected of these guys now and losing isn't. With high expectations come pressure. They have to find away to turn that pressure into diamonds before they crack.