Rays series gives A's blueprint for '16 success

Valencia homers 5 times, Madson saves a pair in gritty 3-game set

May 16th, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG -- As the Oakland Athletics struggled their way through 10 excruciating May losses, the painful setbacks weren't something Moneyball could fix.

Granted, as has often been written, the A's live under the shadow of Michael Lewis's 13-year-old book and the popular 2011 Oscar-nominated movie. Where's Brad Pitt when we need him?

Or does Billy Beane (portrayed by Pitt in the movie) need to wave his magic executive's wand and do something to give the A's a new beginning to what has become a disappointing start?

None of the above seems likely at the moment.

Maybe what these A's need most is the type of stirring victory they pulled off Sunday against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Danny Valencia, who had homered twice before in the series, blasted a two-run shot with the Athletics down to their last out, propelling the 7-6 triumph and sending them back to Oakland on a much-needed positive note. The A's next 10 games (seven at home) undoubtedly will answer many questions about this team and how the 2016 season will unfold.

When the A's arrived at Tropicana Field on Friday, they'd lost nine of 10 games, including five in a row. But in the opener against the Rays, Valencia homered twice and they held on for a 6-3 win before being shut out, 6-0, Saturday night.

Sunday, with Sonny Gray, the A's young ace who finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting last year, scuffling (he allowed three homers), they were headed to a 5-4 loss before Valencia, cheered on by his elated parents in the stands, turned the tide.

"Any time you have a tough road trip and it can end with a game like this should be a good incentive," said manager Bob Melvin. "Valencia had quite a day, really quite a series. He comes off the DL and makes an impact in both games we won."

Melvin added: "Winning with one out left is what we have to be all about. In past years, that's what we have been all about. Until that last out is recorded, we feel like we have a chance. And the bullpen did its job."

That Oakland could win the series, that the bullpen of Ryan Dull, John Axford and Ryan Madson blanked the Rays over the final four innings, was significant.

The Athletics begin a three-game series on Monday night against the AL West-leading Rangers, then host the Yankees for four before hitting the road for three games against the surprising Mariners. They begin the Coliseum homestand in fourth place with a 16-22 record.

Oakland had the worst bullpen in the AL last year, with a 4.63 ERA. Relievers just couldn't hold leads late in games. Only the Mariners lost more games when they were leading after the seventh inning. That contributed largely to the A's last-place finish and the worst record (68-94) in the AL.

Beane and his lieutenants spent the offseason strengthening the bullpen. They traded for Marc Rzepczynski and signed Madson and Axford for a combined $32 million. Strong moves.

After Valencia, who returned from the disabled list on May 6, hit his fifth homer in three games and raised his batting average to .342, Madson shut down the Rays on just four pitches -- Kevin Kiermaier and Curt Casali grounded out on the first pitch, and Brandon Guyer popped out to first base after taking a strike.

"I've never gotten a save on just four pitches before," said Madson, who as Oakland's closer has not allowed an earned run in his past 12 games and is 10-for-10 in save opportunities.

The strong bullpen and the return of Valencia could be a key.

"Our bullpen is completely transformed this year," said Melvin. "Last year, we had leads and had trouble holding them, and that has changed."

"Coming off the injury, I just wanted to get back in the flow of things, to perform well in front of my friends and family, and the team win means a lot," Valencia said. "I was able to find my timing here, and hopefully can build off this going forward."

Valencia's parents, who live in the Miami area, drove to St. Petersburg for the series.

"It was a cool experience for them and for me," he said. "They don't get to see me too much. For them to come and experience that [three home runs], I'm sure they're thrilled driving back home."

The Athletics won back-to-back division titles in 2012-13 and went to the postseason as a Wild Card team in 2014.

Then came the 2015 collapse.

In August and September 2002, the Moneyball A's, after being mired in third place, made history, winning twenty games in a row to set an AL record. They went on to win their division title.

Getting back to the top will be a difficult challenge for these A's, but with today's parity in Major League Baseball, it's possible.

"A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about how bunched our division was," said Melvin. "Now, it's not so grouped. There are two teams at the top, [the Rangers and Mariners], and three are seeming to struggle a little bit.

"There were times during the season when there were some teams you maybe thought gave you an easier schedule, but now it's a harder schedule. Everyone in the American League is a challenge, for sure."

Taking a chapter out of "Moneyball" might not be as easy as it once was for the A's.