The Oakland Athletics won a big game last night: after a tough loss to close out their road trip in Detroit Thursday, the team returned home Friday and lost yet another late-inning advantage -- but after an offensive rally to regain the lead, closer Grant Balfour was able to nail the door shut on the Tampa Bay Rays for the 4-3 win that puts the A's on top of the American League wild-card standings.
Returning to the O.co Coliseum for the first time since being reacquired by the team, catcher Kurt Suzuki hit a three-run home run that gave Oakland a 3-1 lead in the fifth inning. However, the once-iron A's bullpen showed its deep cracks in the eighth inning when reliever Ryan Cook couldn't protect the two-run lead bequeathed to him by starter Jarrod Parker.
Thankfully, for the Oakland fans, Coco Crisp led off the bottom of the eighth with a single, and after moving to second on Josh Donaldson's groundout, Jed Lowrie doubled him home with a hit down the right-field line -- and Balfour, after throwing 27 pitches in the Thursday loss in Detroit, tossed 19 pitches to close out the victory.
Now, the 76-58 A's lead the 75-58 Rays by a half game for the top wild-card slot in the AL, and Oakland also closed their AL West division gap to two games, trailing the 78-56 Texas Rangers.
Suzuki's heroics aside, the A's have a problem they probably should deal with: a tired bullpen.
Cook's blown lead was his third since August 12, and while he has a nice 3-1 record this month with a 2.45 ERA, he hadn't previously blown a lead since June 20 -- and to do it three times in less than three weeks may signify something is amiss.
In fact, the three primary stalwarts of the Oakland bullpen -- Balfour, Cook and Sean Doolittle -- have a combined seven blow leads since the All-Star break (39 games), when they had a combined six in the first half (95 games).
But the A's braintrust has done nothing to improve the relief corps before or after the July trade deadline, and with today being the last day to acquire cleared-waivers players, it doesn't look like Oakland is going to make any moves.
The A's are finally above .500 in the second half of the season (20-19), and their schedule gets a lot easier next week: Oakland finishes the regular season against 44-90 Houston (four games at home), 58-75 Minnesota (three games away and four at home), Texas (three games away), 61-72 Los Angeles (three games home and three games away) and 61-73 Seattle (three games away).
But Oakland has struggled against the Mariners this year (a mere 6-10), and finishing with their last six on the road in Los Angeles and Seattle won't be easy.
Basically, the A's are going to need to at least win two more games on this home stand against Tampa Bay and Texas combined, followed by three wins out of four against the Astros here next week.
On their six-game road trip through Minnesota and Texas (September 10-15), Oakland will need to win three of those games, at least. The A's will need to win five of seven at home against the Angels and the Twins, before those final six on the road where the team will probably need to win four of six to have any shot at the AL West title and/or the AL postseason.
That would bring Oakland to a 93-69 record, and a mark of that caliber ought to be enough to make it to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
But the A's are going to need their first-half bullpen to do that -- not the current one, and short of getting some more quality arms in the queue
Last year, Oakland used its bullpen a lot to get to the postseason, and the AL Division Series Game Two meltdown in Detroit possibly cost the A's a chance to go to the World Series.
General Manager Billy Beane would be wise to learn from that lesson and fix this problem as soon as possible, without merely waiting for the issue to correct itself. He used to go fix the holes on his team, but Beane's been strangely quiet this year on the trade front -- even with this problem costing the A's almost on a daily basis.
He's got a few hours left today to truly change that reality.