Oakland A's Face Tampa Bay Rays in Huge Series

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COMMENTARY | Looking horrible for the better part of a month, the Oakland A's stunned everybody by going into Detroit and beating the Tigers in 3 of 4 games.

If it weren't for a Grant Balfour meltdown of epic proportions Thursday afternoon, it would have been a clean sweep in the Motor City.

Despite the disappointment of that contest, the A's looked terrific. Now they turn their attention to a team that swept them in May, the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa is coming off a tough series, losing 2 of 3 against the Los Angeles Angels at home.

The two teams are separated by only a half-game in the wild-card standings, making this one of the most important matchups of the year. With a series win, Oakland would hop over the Rays ever so slightly. This very well could be a preview of the stress-inducing one-game-winner-take-all playoff.

Pitching matchups

David Price (8-5, 3.28) vs. Jarrod Parker (10-6, 3.58)

Price has been vintage since coming off the DL on July 2 after missing more than a month with a triceps issue. In his 11 starts since, Price has allowed more than two earned runs only twice in any start. In August, he's yet to allow a homer, leading to his 2.38 ERA. Oakland's platooning might give Price a problem, as righties hit .266 off him compared to .195 from the lefties.

Parker has been absolutely lights-out recently. The young right-hander is 4-0 in his last five starts, and over his last three games has pitched at least eight innings and not allowed more than one run. Since May 6, Parker hasn't given up more than three earned runs in any outing sans once. This contest against Price could, and should, be epic.

Alex Cobb (8-2, 2.87) vs. Sonny Gray (1-2, 3.18)

After a very scary moment in which Cobb was drilled in the head with a line drive back on June 15, the hurler has returned and pitched with valor. In the three starts since toeing the rubber again, Cobb is 2-0 and has surrendered only five earned runs in that stretch. The only problem has been walks, issuing nine free passes.

Gray, Oakland's top pitching prospect, will give us our first glimpse into how he bounces back after failure. In his fourth start at the major-league level, the Baltimore Orioles pounded Gray in 3.1 innings for eight hits and six earned. Overall, Gray has been as advertised with a .194 opponents' average and a WHIP of 1.02.

Roberto Hernandez (6-13, 4.95) vs. A.J. Griffin (11-9, 3.94)

The artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona has been brutal this season, but he spun a gem against the A's in May. Hernandez earned his first win of 2013 by beating Oakland with a six-inning, one-run showing. August hasn't been kind, however, as Hernandez is saddled with an 0-2 mark and 6.33 ERA. On the road, Hernandez has an ugly 6.11 ERA.

Griffin received a win against the Tigers in the series opener, despite giving up four runs, including two more round-trippers, in five innings. With a league-leading 32 homers blasted off Griffin, you have to wonder, does he just assume any ball hit in the air is gone? Griffin's control has been spotty in August, walking 17 hitters while punching out 23.

Hitters to watch

Ben Zobrist won't mind seeing Parker, who he has three hits against in nine at-bats, including a homer. Evan Longoria has been raking this month, swatting seven bombs. Matt Joyce is leading the club in average during August with a .370 clip.

Alberto Callaspo comes in against Price with a .400 lifetime average (6-for-15). Jed Lowrie has never left the batter's box disappointed versus Cobb, with a 4-for-4 mark. Brandon Moss comes in red-hot, having hit three homers in the last series opposing the Tigers, giving him a team-leading 25.

Final thought

Coming back to surpass the Texas Rangers in the American League West isn't impossible with only a 3-game deficit, but getting ahead of Tampa Bay has to be the first priority. Certainly, having a home game and not having to potentially travel across the country for a one-game wild card would be very advantageous.

With 29 games remaining, the A's have a chance to kick things into high gear and make a push to earn a second consecutive playoff berth, something this franchise hasn't done since 2002-03.

Matt Verderame is a lifelong Oakland A's follower and has been published in the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin and also at SB Nation among other papers and websites. His Twitter handle is @MattVerderame.

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