The problem with a leaky bullpen is it can kill momentum, and the 2014 Oakland Athletics know that clearly now. After the bullpen collapsed Thursday in Tampa Bay to end a win streak, the A's lost three straight in Toronto over the weekend to see their American League West lead cut to 1.5 games over the Los Angeles Angels.
And that's why the bullpen mess is an issue for the Oakland organization right now. With nine loss and eight blown saves, the A's relievers have been problematic for the team with few other weaknesses on its way to a 30-20 start through the first 50 games.
But again, it's the lost momentum that is huge. If Dan Otero and Luke Gregerson can preserve the win in Tampa Bay on Thursday, then maybe the A's don't get swept in Toronto, because it's a lot easier and more fun to travel after a nice win than it is after an avoidable loss.
Oakland's starting staff took three losses in Toronto, which was surprising, although none of the three pitchers performed particularly poorly: Scott Kazmir gave up three earned runs in seven innings on Friday, Jesse Chavez coughed up only two earned runs in 5.1 innings Saturday, and Drew Pomeranz surrendered two earned runs in four innings today.
So the A's starters gave up seven earned runs in three starts, the team was outscored 11-5 in the three games at the former SkyDome, and Oakland lost all three. The offense surely carries some blame here, totally just 19 hits in the series, but everyone knows the lineup is streaky.
Momentum means a lot, and the A's went from winning 11 of 12 to now losing four straight, and you don't want to be asking, "What if?" a lot after bullpen failures -- especially in the postseason, as Oakland knows from its two consecutive AL Division Series losses to the Detroit Tigers when a stronger bullpen effort could have won each series.
The good news? The bullpen pitched decently in Toronto to keep each game close, totaling 7.2 innings and two earned runs. The A's relievers do have the best group ERA in the AL, but the situational problems remain a puzzle: Oakland guys pitch well enough in low-leverage situations, but those blown leads hurt.
The team has suffered these issues before under Manager Bob Melvin: in 2012, Grant Balfour lost the closer role to Ryan Cook who then lost it himself. Balfour closed the season well enough, before that Game Two meltdown for the whole gang in the ALDS at Comerica Park.
And in 2013, Balfour started the real very strong, but in August, the whole relief corps struggled a bit before righting the ship and cruising into the postseason -- where a Game Four slip cost Oakland the ALDS, again at Comerica Park.
Hopefully, the A's relievers will come together again soon, and Oakland can win its 17th division title. If not, it may be a long summer of frustration for the team and fans alike.