May 13, 2013

Athletics no longer flying under the AL radar

The Rangers are revisiting the site of their 2012 regular-season demise.

The last time that the Texas Rangers saw the Oakland Athletics, the two division rivals were passing each other like cruise ships in the night.

It was the final week of the 2012 regular season, and the A’s were wearing party hats and seemed to be dancing on home plate every night. It was full steam ahead for an American League West title that they would capture on the final day.

The Rangers, on the other hand, had struck an iceberg in mid-September and were gurgling to the bottom. The dropped fly ball by Josh Hamilton was merely their final gasp.

To hear the players tell it, baseball is a game of short attention spans. The best ones, they say, can quickly forget the 0-for-4s and the 450-foot home runs they allowed. The doomed are unable to turn the page.

It is possible, therefore, that the holdovers from last Rangers season have already purged their baseball memories of any debris from the October implosion. But I tend to doubt it.

That last visit to Oakland was awash in too much theatre to forget. The Athletics were having too much fun. It had to be embarrassing for the Rangers, squandering a five-game division lead in the final nine days of the schedule, especially in Coliseum, or whatever it’s called, where the A’s had toiled in relative isolation all season.

In the opener of that final three-game series in Oakland, only 21,162 showed up, which meant 40 percent of the stadium’s baseball seats were unfilled. Bigger crowds showed up for the last two games — for the viewing of the Rangers’ body, we presume.

And that’s where they left it. The national media popped in their Moneyball DVDs and quickly shifted their postseason focus to the plucky Athletics. The Rangers, meanwhile, staggered home with only questions and no answers.

Now the two teams meet again, beginning Monday night. And how things have changed for both teams.

No Jonny Gomes, no Brandon Inge, no Hamilton, no Mike Napoli, no Michael Young. As the series begins, injured are Brett Anderson, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Matt Harrison and Colby Lewis.

In baseball, even though tradition reigns, teams change. Lineups are tweaked. Clubhouse chemistry gets mixed anew. Injuries happen.

When Oakland began this season winning 12 of 16 games, it was roundly proclaimed that the magic was back. Cue the home plate dancers.

As it turned out, though, nine of the Athletics’ first 12 victories were over the Astros and struggling Angels. The A’s will carry a 19-20 record into Monday’s game, and they are 5-15 against teams not from Houston or Anaheim.

Too early to jump to conclusions? Certainly. Oakland was 22-30 on June 1 a year ago, and the A’s stunningly went 72-38 after that.

After a 6-1 loss to Seattle on Sunday, pitcher Tommy Milone seemed to be trying to reunite the old band.

Speaking to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Milone said, “We’ve been there, so it’s not something we’re really worried about right now.”

Oakland’s Brandon Moss added, “We’ve got to keep playing hard and keep believing, because we’re much better than we’ve been playing.”

But are they really? The A’s are third in the major leagues in runs scored, but half of their 187 runs have come against the Astros and Angels. The rest of baseball has outscored the Athletics, 137-90.

It’s the new major league math. Playing the expansion-like Houston franchise, which AL West opponents will do 19 times this season, is going to be like tennis. You’d better not double-fault against the Astros.

And whereas Oakland flew under the radar for six months last season, while all eyes were focused on the big-bucks Angels, the Athletics won’t have the luxury of anonymity this season.

They danced too often at home plate last season for teams to forget.

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