Inside Pitch: A’s fancy themselves as contenders

Coming out of the All-Star break, the Oakland Athletics and Manager Bob Melvin made a pair of seemingly inconsequential roster adjustments.

Perhaps the moves were meant as a white flag, symbolizing the acceptance of the team’s fate. Perhaps they were made in preparation for pending trade deadline deals. But, what came out of the call-up Ryon Healy and insertion of Jake Smolinski in the starting center-field position is a resurgence.

Now just nine games under .500, and 12 games out first, a 7-3 homestand coming out of the break has propelled the A’s (45-54) toward the realm of postseason contention.

Major League Baseball’s leading hitter with runners in scoring position, Coco Crisp (.426) said the return to the postseason picture is as simple as taking sets, as they have done in all three chances in the second half:

“We’re just trying to win series. … You’re not going to win every game, but if we can pull off these series then we can start to slowly make moves. That’s been our thought process right now.”

Fastball: The offense will not go down without a fight

Winning five of their last seven games, the Oakland offense battled from behind three times while celebrating three walk-off wins.

In the seven games, the A’s batted a modest .242. In their five wins, however, they were a much more productive .276.

When the games was on the line, though, the team average rose considerably as they were an impressive 27-for-91 (.297) in the seventh inning or later, despite a meager 8-for-43 (.186) — leaving an unfathomable 19-for-48 (.396) in the other four matchups.

Melvin said that the offense’s late fight has produced a feeling in the clubhouse that the team is never out of a game:

“We’re (7-3) in the second half, and it feels like we’ve been in almost every game. … We had a tough first half — you get beat down a little bit. It’s been a lot better-feeling here in the second half, and hopefully it continues.”

Scoring 38 runs thus far in the second half Melvin’s offense has some room to grow, still.

Changeup: Smolinski red hot

With a hit in each of the last seven games, Smolinski (.333/.387/.550 2016 slash) is batting .429 (12-for-28) with two homers (6) and six RBIs (22) since the break.

With Billy Burns (.234/.270/.303) struggling throughout the first half, he was optioned to Triple-A Nashville forcing Smolinski into an everyday role — with him in the starting lineup, the A’s are 11-15.

Of the hot second-half start, “Smol” said:

“(We’re) just trying to stay positive. No matter what the situation is try to have a good energy, and believe that we’re going to give it all we’ve got. That’s all we can do.”

Curveball: Youth on display

Along with Smolinski (27 years old). Healy (24), Sean Manaea (24) and Kendall Graveman (25) have each played significant roles in the quick start to the second half.

For Manaea (3-5, 4.61 ERA) and Graveman (7-6, 4.15 ERA) the re-emergence is one month in the making, as the pitching duo is a combined 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in July.

Healy (.278/.297/.528), who made his big league debut in the first game out of the break, has teamed up with Smolinski to provide much of the punch — four home runs and 13 RBIs in the 10 games.

Said Melvin:

“Youthful enthusiasm has a lot to do with how we’re playing right now. We have some guys that are hungry — given an opportunity they’re taking advantage of it.”

Sinker: Not maximizing damage

Despite scoring 22 runs in seven games (3.14 per game), the A’s amazingly left 52 men on base.

Much of that struggle stemmed from the feeble 12-for-49 (.245) with runners in scoring position. Those struggles plateaued when, after eight scoreless innings from Manaea, Oakland needed 13 innings to claim a 1-0 victory on Friday — in the game they 1-for-6 in the run-scoring at-bats.

Slider: Gray’s scuffle continues

The only starting pitcher to allow more than three runs in any of the seven games, Sonny Gray (4-9, 5.49 ERA) allowed seven runs in five innings taking the the loss in Thursday’s 7-3 defeat.

Gray is 1-3 with a 7.04 ERA in July. After consecutive strong showings, the ace endured one of the worst starts of his career.

His season long struggles have left the little righty searching, unsuccessfully, for answers. His manager, though, still has the utmost confidence in his abilities:

“He’s had a tough time this year, and it’s the first time he’s ever had to go through something like (this). …  We still feel like his stuff is good. We still feel confident every time he goes out there.”

Pitch out: The Green and Gold head to Arlington, then Cleveland

After three games against the Rangers, against whom they are 4-3, the A’s will head to Cleveland where they will face the Indians for the first time this season. Both teams lead their respective division.

Rookie Daniel Mengden (1-5, 5.52 ERA), who has seen his own recent struggles going 0-2 with a 9.33 ERA in July, is scheduled get two starts in the six-game stretch. Gray will pitch Tuesday, with the uncertainty of Hill and his blister tentatively penciled for Friday.

To overcome the question marks presented by the pitching, the offense will need to find a way to score more. And improving hitting with runners in scoring position is the best place to start.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.