OAKLAND — After closing the first half of the regular season with seven straight one-run games, the Oakland Athletics could use a few days off before they attempt to duplicate their second-half heroics of last season.
“It’s been a tough week, but it’s been a tough season,” All-Star left-hander Barry Zito said. “It’s a good time for everybody to get some time off.”
After a three-day break to relax and recharge while Zito and shortstop Miguel Tejada go to Milwaukee for the All-Star Game, the A’s seem destined for another exciting playoff chase. They got in shape for it last week by playing a series of games that went down to the last at-bat, capped by a 3-2 victory over Kansas City on Sunday.
Despite their difficult final week, the A’s got back in the thick of the postseason race with a 30-12 record leading up to the break. Oakland is 50-38 overall, trailing first-place Seattle by five games and second-place Anaheim by two in the AL West.
The A’s have their best record at the All-Star break since 1992. Last season, they were just 44-43 at the break, but they streaked to a second straight playoff berth in the second half with some of the best baseball in franchise history.
Once again, the A’s are chasing the mighty Mariners in the division race; this season, however, it’s much more of a contest than in 2001, when Seattle streaked to the majors’ best record and won the division with 116 victories despite the A’s phenomenal second half.
At 102-60, Oakland earned the majors’ second-best record in 2001 by going 58-17 after the break. The A’s had the majors’ best record in the months of July, August, September and October, posting the second-best winning percentage after the break in major league history.
Nobody expects Oakland to repeat those numbers again — not with Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon playing in the AL East, and not with the A’s lineup struggling for consistent production. Only Tejada and Eric Chavez have stayed injury free and produced in the manner expected of them this season.
“We’ve had some struggles to score runs, but we had some of the same problems last year in the early going,” said Chavez, who has 58 RBIs and a team-high 20 homers. “We’re not getting as many big homers as we did with Jason in the lineup, but we’re still winning and getting the job done.”
Once again, the A’s are winning with dominant starting pitching. Each member of Oakland’s Big Three has returned to top form, though Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder both pitched through struggles.
Hudson, who appeared to be laboring under heightened expectations in the season’s first weeks, has found his groove again and improved to 6-7 with a 3.44 ERA. Mulder, whose forearm injury still won’t allow him to throw at full strength, was spectacular in June, earning AL Pitcher of the Month honors while padding his 9-5 record in just 14 starts this season.
Zito has been outstanding from the start, improving to 11-3 by beating Kansas City on Sunday. He may not pitch in Tuesday’s All-Star game, but there’s no doubt he belongs on the AL roster in Milwaukee.
Manager Art Howe will soon decide the odd man out of the rotation among rookie Aaron Harang, inconsistent right-hander Cory Lidle and left-hander Ted Lilly, who was acquired from the Yankees last week.
“It’s a good decision to have,” Howe said. “Whatever we do, we’ll need good pitching from all three of those guys this season.”
Oakland gets back to the business of chasing Seattle on Thursday with a series in Baltimore. The A’s return home on July 17 for five division games against Anaheim and Texas.
The A’s have won just five of 13 games over the Mariners this season. The teams will meet just six more times this season, with two three-game series in September — just about the time this division race seems likely to be at its hottest.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Howe said. “If we keep improving, we’ll be right where we want to be.”