Q: How do you explain what the A's are doing this season?
-- Don Hastings, Oakland, Calif.
A: They really have come out of nowhere, haven't they? I questioned their off-season moves, especially trading away three good, young pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey) they could have had under control at reasonable costs for a couple more seasons.
And through the first two months — when the A's were eight games under .500 — it appeared as if this $50 million roster (down from $67 million 2011) was going to struggle through another losing season.
But since June 2, when they broke a nine-game losing streak, the A's are playing .667 baseball (54-28 entering Tuesday), and writing a much different story. How, you ask?
Moves we thought could pay off a bit down the road are paying immediate dividends. Yoenis Cespedes' four-year, $36 million deal looks like a bargain now, as he's on pace for a .295-20 HRs-80 RBIs-20 SBs rookie season.
Vice president/general manager Billy Beane and his evaluators also hit home runs on the talent that came back in the trades: Josh Reddick for Bailey, Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook for Cahill, Tommy Milone and Derek Norris for Gonzalez.
And even stop-gap veterans Brandon Inge, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew are making contributions.
You expect an A's staff to post one of the league's best ERAs given their pitcher-friendly home ballpark, and that's the case again, as the A's are second at 3.42. But what's unusual here is that manager Bob Melvin has been forced to use 10 different starting pitchers because of injuries and Bartolo Colon's suspension.
Offensively, the A's have been climbing since June and sit ninth in the AL in runs scored (just ahead of two other contenders in the Orioles and Rays), and 10th in slugging percentage.
What they lack in batting average (13th in the AL), they make up in power (seventh in homers), and eight players in double figures in home runs.
But one note of caution: If the A's do make a very unexpected postseason appearance, they will have earned it because their schedule will be very difficult down the stretch. It's the most-difficult remaining schedule of any AL contender, with all contenders except the Mariners, who have a winning record since the All-Star break. In series order:
Vs. Los Angeles (three games), @ Seattle (three), @ Los Angeles (four), Vs. Baltimore (three), @ Detroit (three), @ New York (three), @ Texas (four), Vs. Seattle (three), Vs. Texas (three).
Q: What could possibly be wrong with Jon Lester? How does such a talented pitcher turn so drastically without an apparent injury?
-- Jim Pasqurell, Aurora, N.C.
A: Lester has had some dings along the way, the latest a leg cramp that forced him from an Aug. 24 start after seven innings. But you're right, there is nothing serious enough to keep him from making starts and racking up innings, and that makes his lack of success this season more mystifying.
Sometimes there can be a fine line between very good and mediocre. Lester's peripheral stats are down, but not enough to warrant a big rise in ERA — 5.01 this season compared to a 3.75 career mark and a 2008-11 run of 3.21, 3.41, 3.25 and 3.47.
His opponents' batting average is up to .273 — 24 points higher than his career .249 mark and well above his previous four-year run of .256, .242, .220 and .234. Lester's strikeouts per nine innings also are down to 7.51 from 8.55 in 2011 and a high of 9.96 in 2009.
But his walk rate actually is better than the past two seasons, his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is only .07 higher than his career mark (1.37 to 1.30), and he's throwing the exact number of pitches per inning (16.7) as he did last season, and only .1 more than his career average (16.6).
So despite the dropoff in results, there's nothing that makes you think this is a long-term decline, or that a bounce back in 2013 isn't possible. After four excellent seasons by Lester, he's simply experiencing a down year — and you can say that about the Red Sox as a whole, can't you?
NEW YORK (AP) - Yankees fans showed Don Mattingly the love from the moment he took the lineup card to home plate Wednesday. Hiroki Kuroda, though, wasn't feeling nostalgic when facing his old team.
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