The Rangers' lead over the A's in the AL West -- 7 games less than three weeks ago -- remains at 1.5 games. Maybe you were ready to count out the A's back when they were plodding along at 20-22, chalking up 2012's division title as a fluke. But this is what the A's do: They get on these awesome runs, an Oakland tradition going back to the Hudson-Zito-Mulder clubs.
Last year, they were 37-42 entering July, 13 games out of first place. They won 18 of their next 21 games; in August and early September they would run off another stretch of 15 wins in 17 games. In 2006, when they had last won the AL West title, the A's were 25-30 on June 2 when they won 13 out of 14. They would later reel out a 17-3 stretch. In 2004, they had a 16-2 stretch in August/early September. In 2003, it was a 14-2 stretch in August/September that pulled them to a division title. In 2002, it was the famous 20-game winning streak beginning in August. In 2001, they had a 22-2 stretch -- again in August into September.
Those earlier years were a different generation of A's teams, of course, but the A's have always had a similar philosophy, it seems: They're loose, they have fun, they play with that ol' fire in their bellies. Whether or not that helps to lead to more of these hot streaks, I don't know, but when the A's get hot they seem unstoppable.
The Rangers, of course, were supposed to be here, although there were some questions about the offense after losing Josh Hamilton, some concerns about the bullpen with Alexi Ogando moving back to the rotation, and then some concerns about the rotation after Matt Harrison underwent back surgery after just two starts.
It's a fascinating AL West race, especially after the A's swept the Rangers in the final three games last season to pass the Rangers and send Texas into the wild-card game. The Rangers have become one of baseball's wealthy franchises while the A's are still put together with toothpaste and tin foil. The Rangers still have the star power -- Yu Darvish, Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler -- while Oakland's best player has been the relatively unknown second-year third baseman/former catcher Josh Donaldson.
Bartolo Colon has been the A's best pitcher this season.
This race becomes even more interesting if MLB does find a way to suspend the players involved in the Biogenesis report. While the biggest names there are Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez, the two most important names are Bartolo Colon of the A's and Nelson Cruz of the Rangers. Braun's Brewers are way out of the race, the Yankees are hoping A-Rod just goes away and the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez, while on the list of Biogenesis clients, might have received only legal substances.
Remarkably, Colon, who just turned 40 on May 24, has been Oakland's best pitcher with a 6-2 record and 3.33 ERA. He's become one of the most unique pitchers in major league history. He's walked just four batters in 11 starts and basically throws just fastballs -- two-seamers and four-seamers, so count that as two pitches if you'd like. Of the 964 pitches he's thrown, 823 have been fastballs, with some sliders and changeups mixed in.
If Colon were to be suspended, the A's have a couple options. First, there's Brett Anderson, their preseason No. 1, who's currently on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his right foot. But he might be out another two months. After that, former first-round draft pick Sonny Gray would appear to be the next option, as he has 2.40 ERA at Triple-A Sacramento with 65 strikeouts, 20 walks and just one home run allowed in 63.2 innings.
Cruz may be even more difficult to replace, however. He's having a solid season with a .268/.323/.512 line, hitting his 14th home run in Tuesday's loss. But this Rangers team isn't the offensive powerhouse of recent seasons, ranking seventh in the AL in runs scored. They could play defensive whiz Craig Gentry on a regular basis or utility guy Jeff Baker, but Gentry would be exposed offensively playing every day while Baker is really just a platoon bat against left-handers. There doesn't appear to be much in the way of outfielders on the Triple-A roster. Of course, the wild card could be moving Jurickson Profar to the outfield when Kinsler returns from the DL, but I don't think you would move a rookie infielder to a new position at the major league level. Or, horror of horrors, you could try Lance Berkman or Mitch Moreland out there.
Of those options, playing Gentry is probably the best one; at least he'll give you great defense. Baker can continue to be platooned with David Murphy in left field. But losing Cruz's power still leaves a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup.
The Rangers could look to swing a trade -- Andre Ethier (and his ugly contract) is probably available for free from the Dodgers!
Of course, we're getting way ahead of ourselves. But if MLB gets its way on the suspensions, it's the A's and Rangers who will be most affected. How Billy Beane and Jon Daniels respond ultimately could decide the AL West.