A's Success, Dry Spitters, Tim Lincecum, Lane Kiffin
by Glenn Dickey
May 28, 2008

TWO MONTHS into the season, the Oakland A’s appear to be for real because of a real team effort – and I don’t mean just on the field.

General manager Billy Beane is the face of the franchise and he did a remarkable job in the offseason in trading Dan Haren and Nick Swisher to bring in top pitching and position player prospects, some of whom are on the roster now and some still in the minors. But he couldn’t have done that without help from assistant general manager David Forst, director of personnel Billy Owens – who seems to know every player in everybody’s system in the minor leagues – and director of player development, Keith Liepmann, who keeps close track of all the A’s minor leaguers.

On the field, pitching coach Curt Young has done a remarkable job in his low-key fashion. This year, he faced a big challenge with the trading of staff ace Dan Haren, but he’s put together a staff of largely unknown pitchers who lead the American League in ERA. Rich Harden has come off the DL to pitch very well, lefties Greg Smith and Dana Everland, obtained in trades, have been very effective, and Justin Duchscherer, converted from the bullpen at his request, nearly no-hit the Red Sox on Friday night.

How does Young do it? You’ll never learn from him because he doesn’t like to talk about himself, but he works with his pitchers on a very individual basis, tailoring his approach to their strengths.

He has some very different pitchers. Harden is a power pitcher who doesn’t have to be so precise in hitting his spots. Duchscherer is just the opposite; he has marginal stuff but great command. Smith and Everland both throw fast balls in the high 80s and depend on the effectiveness of their breaking pitches – much as Young did in his pitching career with the A’s.

With Blanton, it’s a mental thing. He has a better fast ball than Duchscherer, Smith and Everland – topping out at 94 – but nothing like Hardin’s. When he maintains his focus, he’s fine, but he hits stretches where he loses command. Against the Red Sox Sunday, he showed both aspects of his game. He gave up only a solo homer to David Ortiz in the first four innings, then lost his command in the fifth, walking two batters and yielding two runs which closed the A’s lead to 4-3. But then, he came out for the sixth and pitched a quick 1-2-3 inning.

In one of those odd little coincidences, the A’s and Giants share an unusual distinction: Their Opening Day pitchers are now the worst in their rotation. Blanton hasn’t had the disastrous start that Barry Zito had, but he’s been overshadowed by the other starters.

The next moves will be Beane’s when the trading market heats up in July, but the A’s success may change his strategy. There had been talk earlier that Beane might trade both Blanton and Huston Street. I’d guess now that Blanton could still be traded but it’s more likely that Street’s contract will be extended. Joey Devine, another pitcher obtained in a trade (Mark Kotsay), has looked very good and could conceivably be a closer, but a healthy Street has been lights-out lately; he recorded his 12th save Tuesday night.

The A’s will also face some roster decisions in the near future, but they’ll be the good ones, because they’ll have too many players who can help.

Eric Chavez may be back as early as June 6 from his rehab stint in Sacramento. Travis Buck will be back when the A’s are confident he has his swing back. He’ll give the A’s a very solid outfield with Emil Brown, a top RBI man, and Ryan Sweeney, who has played a very good defensive centerfield – he made a great running catch in the first inning in Sunday’s win – and hit for percentage, though not yet power. He’s only 23, four years from his prime years, and should develop power. He may, in fact, become a better player than Swisher over the course of his career.

That will force a decision on the DH glut. My guess is that Beane will try to trade Mike Sweeney, who can still hit for average though he hasn’t hit for much power yet. Manager Bob Geren will have to juggle his outfield to get playing time for Jack Cust.

But, as I say, those are the good problems. Managers much prefer to juggle good players than to look at holes in the lineup because they don’t have enough good players. When the A’s get Chavez and Buck back, they’ll be in the former category.

DOWN MEMORY LANE: In one of those free-wheeling conversations in the A’s press box on Sunday, we were discussing the Billy Martin era, when the A’s pitchers threw a “dry spitter.”

Post career, Mike Norris revealed that A’s pitchers would put soap in the crotch of their uniform pants, knowing that was an area the umpires would never check. In critical situations, they’d put a little soap on the ball to get a bigger break.

But, of course, there was never any cheating in baseball before the steroids era.

BASEBALL ART: If it’s spring, it’s time for the annual baseball art exhibit at the George Krevsky Gallery, 77 Geary St., third floor, San Francisco.

Krevsky, a life-long fan who started rooting for the A’s in Philadelphia and is still doing that now that he’s living in Oakland, has put together an imaginative collection of paintings and photographs of former players. Sometimes, it’s a combination, as with a Willie Mays montage that caught my eye. The artist painted Mays at the end of his swing, and if you knew nothing about Willie, the graceful form pictured there would tell you, this is a great athlete. It was a kick for me to walk through the exhibit to see so many players I could identify just by their form. Some examples: Warren Spahn swooping his arms behind his back as he starts his windup; Juan Marichal kicking his leg high before delivering a pitch; Willie McCovey following through on his home run swing. It’s all a hoot.

The exhibit lasts through June 3.

HOLIDAY SCHEDULING: Memorial Day is one of the two great national holidays during baseball season. With children out of school, it should be an attendance boon, but six teams, including the Giants and A’s, didn’t even play Monday and one of the 12 games played was in Toronto! I’m sure the Canadians had the holiday spirit.

GIANTS SAVIOR: Tim Lincecum continues to be perhaps the best pitcher on a bad team since Steve Carlton with the 1972 Phillies.

Lincecum’s seven wins are exactly 1/3 of the Giants total. He’s on track to win 18 games while the Giants are on track to lose 97. Not quite the equal of Carlton’s unbelievable 1972 season, when he won 27 games with a 1.97 ERA for a Phillies team that won only 59 games, 32 when he wasn’t pitching, all year. Still, Lincecum’s efforts have kept the Giants from being off-the-wall bad.

The Giants also play much better behind Lincecum. You can see that they have a better attitude when he takes the mound, because they know they have a good chance to win, even when they’re up against a tough pitcher, as they were last night in Phoenix against Haren.

DEAD MAN WALKING? Watching Lane Kiffin on the sidelines at Raiders camp, one writer surmised that he’s lost his feeling for the game because of the off-season turmoil with Al Davis. His sideline demeanor, the writer suggested, was that of a man detached from his environment, as opposed to the rah-rah guy Kiffin was in training camp last season.

Kiffin is indeed a different coach from last season, but that’s not a bad thing. His attitude early on last season was that of a college coach. That doesn’t work well with pro players, who tend to discount what the coach is saying. They don’t want rah-rah. They want a plan which will help them win games.

Kiffin also didn’t understand how to deal with the media. His coyness over naming the starting quarterback was the best example of that. Again, that’s the attitude of a college coach, who is trying to keep the other coach guessing. Pro coaches don’t pay attention to that because they know the game plans won’t change significantly with a different quarterback.

The offseason taught Kiffin one thing: The media is not his enemy. His enemy is sitting in the owner’s box. So, Kiffin is using the media to get his message to the public, no longer even trying to pretend that everything is fine in Raiderland.

Kiffin wasn’t going to just leave after last season, as Davis wanted, because he would have left $4 million on the table, $2 million for each of the two years left on his schedule. Davis thought Kiffin was angling for the Arkansas job last season, though there’s no proof of that. One thing is certain, though: If a college team comes to him with a good offer this season, he’ll take it. In the meantime, he’s playing by Davis’s rules.

What does that mean for the Raiders? Probably not much. The players are used to turmoil, with four different coaches since Jon Gruden was “traded” to Tampa Bay.

And, Kiffin will find another job. The rest of the football world knows the difficulty of doing anything for a football team guided by a geriatric egomaniac. It’s almost a recommendation to be fired by Al Davis.

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