Bob Melvin is exhausting his bullpen not because he wants to but because, as the manager, he has to. More than any other factor, it is the ‘pen that will guide this A's team to its destiny.
The latest example came Thursday night in Houston. After starter Homer Bailey left in the sixth inning, Melvin needed 11 more outs to secure a win. He turned to five different relievers.
After taking the ball from Bailey, Melvin first went to lefthander Jake Diekman, who then handed it to Yusmeiro Petit, who then gave it to A.J. Puk, who then gave it to Blake Treinen, who then flipped it to closer Liam Hendriks, who ended matters with a whistling fastball past a gazing Michael Brantley.
That delivered a pulsating 3-2 victory over Astros ace Justin Verlander, allowed the A's to take three of four games in the most imposing home yard in the American League and also moved them into the No. 1 wild-card spot for the first time this season.
On this night, the ‘pen was Melvin's salvation, warming hearts in the clubhouse and across the fan base.
If the bullpen holds up, there will be October baseball in Oakland, and more than one game. Everything else about this club has been reasonably reliable, if not downright remarkable.
The frequent home runs – seven players have at least 20 bombs; 12 more would set a franchise record – are awe-inspiring, an impressive show of muscle. They light up the scoreboard, energize the dugout, build leads, wipe out deficits and deliver the occasional walk-off victory.
No real worries here.
The A's have the surest gloves in the league, with first baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Matt Chapman and shortstop Marcus Semien having particularly stellar seasons. Fielding has not always been properly appreciated in Oakland, but this group is proving its importance.
No real worries here. At all.
The starting pitching has been better than it looks. Dominating performances have been few, but Oakland's 73 quality starts rank fifth among MLB's 30 teams. Sean Manaea, the most gifted established starter, has been almost unhittable in his first two starts since returning from shoulder surgery.
Oakland is, with good reason, as confident as it is formidable. The A's believe in themselves and can find proof in their 10-4 record against the Astros and Yankees over the past four weeks. More to the point, their 68-35 record since May 14 trails only the East-leading Yankees (73-35) and is two games better than that of the West-leading Astros (67-38).
The A's are a season-high 27 games over .500 as they float into north Texas for a three-game weekend series against the mediocre (74-74) Rangers, their opponent in six of the last 15 games. The other opponents are the definition of deficient: The Royals (three games), the Angels (two) and the Mariners (four).
But one of the lessons learned while reporting and commenting on hundreds of baseball games over the years is that no part of a contending team dictates fortunes quite like its bullpen. A good ‘pen adds points to the manager's IQ, while a bad one subtracts from it.
A great bullpen wins championships.
Which brings us back to Melvin's dilemma. His bullpen is good, but it also has an MLB-high 28 saves. It might be better if it weren't so burdened. Of the six pitchers with the most appearances in the A.L., four are A's. Joakim Soria is sixth, with 66 appearances. Hendriks is tied for third with 68, Diekman is second with 69 and Petit is first, with 73 – roughly every other game.
Though these foreboding numbers are somewhat mitigated by relatively short stints, they still indicate a heavy load.
Plenty of worries here.
The A's last season, preparing for a playoff run, stacked their bullpen with veterans, collecting closers from teams without hope. Jeurys Familia from the Mets. Fernando Rodney from the Twins. They were setup men, handing off to Lou Trivino, who was solid, and Treinen, who was sensational as the closer.
Oakland's postseason lasted one game, in which both Rodney and Treinen were abused.
This time around, the A's decided to sit tight, adding only Diekman. There is more depth among the starters and also more trust.
But make no mistake, the fate of the A's lies with their bullpen. It will, in the end, either warm hearts or break them.