COMMENTARY | Most teams in baseball would sign up for being 56-39 at the All-Star break. In fact, only three teams (St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox) have better records than the Oakland A's, who have their best mark after 95 games since 1990.
With a mixture of solid hitting and good pitching, Oakland has a two-game lead over the Texas Rangers in the American League West and a monster 11-game cushion on the Los Angeles Angels. The next few weeks will be huge for the A's, seeing the Angels seven of their next 10 games.
All of that said, Oakland needs to improve a few areas over the last 2 1/2 months before a potential run in the postseason.
Let's focus on three keys for the A's heading down the stretch:
1. Yoenis Cespedes needs to get hot
Cespedes was the main reason Oakland's offense started to mash after the All-Star game last year. Before the break in 2012, Cespedes hit .263 with nine home runs and 36 RBIs. In the second half, the Cuban went on a tear, batting .311 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs.
If the A's are going to win the AL West, they need Cespedes to rediscover his stroke. While his home runs (15) and RBIs (43) are respectable, a .225 average and .293 OBP aren't. As the most talented player on the team, Cespedes has to start taking more pitches out of the strike zone and going to right field when pitched away.
Last season, Cespedes made these adjustments and became a force. The same must happen in 2013.
2. No home runs allowed
The A's starting pitchers, namely Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Tommy Milone, have been watching too many baseballs become souvenirs. Respectively, the trio has given up 16, 18 and 19 dingers, putting all three in the top 20 for that category.
In the playoffs and against good teams, nothing gets you beat quicker than giving up home runs. Pennant-race baseball usually features low-scoring affairs, making the long ball all the more devastating.
What makes this perplexing is the history (albeit brief) for Griffin and Parker. While Milone allowed 24 gopher balls in 2012, the other two combined to match Milone's total in 44 starts. Time to keep the ball down, boys.
3. Lefties need to step up
Oakland's bullpen has been one of its greatest strengths in recent times, but lately the southpaws aren't holding up their end of the bargain.
Jerry Blevins, who started the year with brilliant stuff, has fallen off since the beginning of June. In that month, Blevins posted an uncharacteristic 6.30 ERA. In four appearances during July, the Tennessee native has a 9.00 ERA. His track record indicates this is a slump and not a trend, but Blevins needs to find himself again for the A's to win tight ballgames.
The other lefty, Sean Doolittle, is a fireballer who also has lost his way. Almost unhittable in the beginning of the year, Doolittle has allowed 12 earned runs in his last 16.2 innings and 21 hits during that span. When he's rolling, Doolittle is part of the trio featuring Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour, which the A's rely upon to shut the door. If the former minor-league first baseman can regain his mojo, look out.
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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