NEW YORK -- It's the time of year for rookie hazing rituals, and the more innovative, the better. Instead of forcing the kids to dress up as cocktail waitresses, Fred Flintstone and the Easter Bunny, the Oakland Athletics opted for a one-size-fits-all wrestling theme. Before the final road trip of the season, the 17 rookies on the roster wore identical green singlets with matching gold headgear.
The final verdict: Outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and catcher Derek Norris looked like they were ready to gouge some eyes and smash a few heads off turnbuckles. Meanwhile, most of their teammates hammed it up like Jack Black in "Nacho Libre."
Manager Bob Melvin favors anything that will help lighten the mood. After grinding their way into position for a playoff spot, the Athletics are in the middle of a 10-game road trip that should settle things once and for all. They're one game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the first wild-card spot, and entered the weekend 4½ games ahead of the Los Angeles Angels for the second. If the A's can play close to .500 ball the rest of the way, they will basically force Mike Scioscia's team to win out.
But some days are more uplifting than others.
After beating the Detroit Tigers 12-4 on Thursday in the finale of a three-game series at Comerica Park, the A's suffered a disheartening loss Friday in the Bronx. Pinch hitter Brandon Moss forced extra innings with a ninth-inning homer off Rafael Soriano, but Russell Martin hit a walk-off shot against Sean Doolittle in the 10th to give New York a 2-1 victory.
The A's don't have much time to dwell on the defeat, with Travis Blackley scheduled to take on Ivan Nova in a Saturday matinee. If Melvin made one thing clear at the outset of this trip, it's the importance of thinking big-picture and keeping emotion out of the equation. Pennant-race tunnel vision has certainly worked for the Orioles, who have won five of seven on their big road trip to Oakland, Seattle and Boston.
"We just try to play for the day," Melvin said. "When we were in Detroit, we weren't looking here. And now that we're here, we're not looking ahead to Texas. Based on the fact that we've had success on the road recently, we're not looking at this as some sort of daunting adventure we have to get through."
Every day is an adventure simply because Melvin keeps dealing with a roster that's constantly evolving. Now that the A's have lost Bartolo Colon to a positive drug test, Brandon McCarthy to a line drive off the head and Brett Anderson to a strained oblique, the starting rotation consists of Blackley and four kids -- Parker, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin.
Parker did himself proud in his Yankee Stadium debut, striking out seven batters, walking none and allowing only one run in eight innings. He hung right in there with CC Sabathia, who eased recent concerns about his health by striking out 11 and hitting 95 mph on the radar gun.
Said Blackley of Parker, "That's the best I've seen him thrown all year, when you consider the situation and where we are in the playoff race.''
As the series opener with New York illustrated, the Oakland offense can alternate between thrilling and exasperating. With 13 strikeouts against Sabathia, the A's raised their major league-leading whiff total to 1,277. In the grand tradition from former franchise favorite Matt Stairs, this Oakland team never gets cheated at the plate. The A's aren't real big advocates of choking up, either.
"It doesn't matter if we score two, three or 20 runs," said veteran outfielder/DH Jonny Gomes. "We're swinging hard. It's become contagious with us."
The approach has its benefits. The A's have 90 homers since the All-Star break -- second-most in the majors behind the Chicago White Sox. Right fielder Josh Reddick, who struck out four times Friday, leads the team with 29 homers. Cespedes and Moss are tied for second on the team with 19, so Oakland is on track to have its first 20-homer trio since 2006, when Frank Thomas hit 39, Nick Swisher added 35 and Eric Chavez chipped in with 22.
Oakland also ranks next-to-last in the majors in batting average at .236, but Melvin disagrees with the notion that his team is too reliant on the long ball for its own good. The A's are ninth in the big leagues with 117 steals, but they began playing a more stationary brand of ball after the All-Star break when all those 360-foot trots prompted Melvin to think less about advancing runners in 90-foot increments.
"As long as we're swinging the bats pretty well, it's going to be a little tougher to push it [on the bases]," Melvin said. "But we can run a little bit, too. We don't have to just rely on the homer to beat you."
The A's might have reason to be concerned about Reddick, who is hitting .158 (12-for-76) with a .444 OPS this month. He's a wiry guy at 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, and after Friday's game, he was wrapped in ice packs on his upper and lower body and walked gingerly through the clubhouse.
"I don't know if he's tired," Melvin said. "Maybe he's a little mentally drained. He's been scuffling for a period of time, but he's a tough kid. He's just going through a little bit of a tough time with the bat."
If Oakland's first 150 games are any indication, Reddick will either return to form soon or his teammates will find a way to compensate for him. The A's might not look like much in wrestling gear. But they can sure put up a fight.