With an 8-6 win over the Minnesota Twins yesterday, the Oakland Athletics lowered their magic number for clinching the American League West division to four: the A's have a 6.5-game lead on the Texas Rangers with only nine games left on the regular season schedule.
Thus, there's a chance still for Oakland to celebrate a division title in front of the hometown fans again -- just like last year -- during this final regular-season weekend at the O.co Coliseum before the A's go on the road for the final six games in Los Angeles and Seattle.
For that to happen, Oakland will need Kansas City to beat the Rangers at least once this weekend.
But even with these favorable circumstances, any casual observer has to wonder about the A's relief corps -- once so strong, lately so weak: not only did Oakland blow a ninth-inning lead on Wednesday in its 5-4 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, but even in the victory last night, A's relievers blew leads twice after the starting pitcher had left the game.
And this is not just a random thing any more: it's become a pattern that's somewhat disconcerting as Oakland heads toward the postseason with grand intentions.
- Closer Grant Balfour had a 1.63 ERA in the first 95 games this year prior to the All-Star break, but he has struggled to a 4.71 mark in the 58 games since;
- Right-handed set-up man Ryan Cook held opponents to a .218 batting average before the ASB, but they've hit .290 off him since then;
- Left-handed set-up stud Sean Doolittle has been inconsistent since May, with monthly ERAs alternating between disastrous and stellar: 6.57 in June, 2.45 in July, 6.75 in August and now 0.90 in September;
- Overall, the A's bullpen is 24-18 with a 3.36 ERA, good enough for third in the AL. But the bullpen ERA at the ASB was 3.12, so overall, there's been a noticeable decline in the second half (as noted above);
- ESPN.com's Jim Bowden just ranked the Oakland bullpen fifth amongst postseason contenders, trailing only Atlanta, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Texas -- but ahead of Cincinnati, Baltimore, Boston and St. Louis.
If Oakland goes into the postseason with tired bullpen arms, that isn't a good sign. The A's had to use the relievers a lot down the stretch last year as the team overcame the five-game deficit in the final nine games to win the AL West -- and that cost them in Game Two of the AL Division Series in Detroit.
The team would be well served to clinch the division title this weekend and rest the bullpen arms a little before heading into the postseason this fall.
Of course, the A's will need some help from the Royals to do that, but it would go a long way if Oakland can sweep Minnesota on their own this weekend.