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Series Preview: The A’s are at it again

They swept the Yankees, who swept the Giants, who were just swept by the Cubs.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The A’s swept the Yankees this week and took three out of four from the Astros. That’s not nothing. Those are two of the best teams in baseball, and the A’s made it look easy. In last week’s series preview, I mentioned:

So, the A’s are fine. The A’s are always fine. And they’re going to need these wins against the Giants to keep it all going. They’re well-managed, play great defense, and they have the Bay Bridge Trophy, which should be all the fire they need to play hard to hold onto it another year.

I can’t stress enough how little the Bridge Trophy matters to anyone outside the A’s marketing department, but a two-game sweep of the Giants this Players’ Weekend will matter a great deal to them and everyone else. Houston will be in Anaheim for three games and are already up 7 games in the AL West, so a sweep helps the A’s keep pace. Another road sweep will end the Giants’ practically nonexistent playoff odds.

But, come on. You’re not watching the Giants and A’s because of the Giants’ playoff odds, right? That’s... that way lies disappointment. The Giants are trailing many better teams. The A’s are a much better team. This weekend is all about the players... and maybe a couple of surprises along the way.

Remarkably, the A’s have swept a two-game set against the Giants just twice (2013 and 2014) since this interleague series began in 1997. That 2013 team wasn’t too hot, but the 2014 team was pretty good. Remarkably, the worst Giants teams of late — the team that played the second half of 2016 to present — have yet to be swept in Oakland. The A’s aren’t even starting Homer Bailey this weekend, so, there’s a nonzero chance of a surprise.

Yet, the A’s are very much like the Cubs who just swept the Giants: a terrific home record (43-24), great pitching (a team ERA- of 89), and a manager with something to prove. Bob Melvin is very much on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to public persona, but whereas Joe Maddon has been successful as more of a mascot or party favor, Melvin has been the perfect manager for this A’s job just because of how much he fits the culture.

He has the right mix of calmness and energy, strategy and intuition; and, when his team talent hasn’t been up to snuff, he’s, well... he’s stuck to it. He and Bruce Bochy would seem to have a lot more in common than Joe Maddon and Bruce Bochy. It’s why rooting against the A’s just don’t make a whole lot of sense: there’s a lot to like on that side of the field.

Then again, there’s a lot to gnash teeth over, too. The A’s have built up a formidable roster after three straight losing seasons (2015-2017), and following their 97-win year, they’re on track to hit the Wild Card game again — not because they’re better offensively (104 OPS+ right now, compared to last year’s 110) or even on the pitching side (109 ERA+ in back-to-back seasons), but because they’re more or less the same. The A’s have built themselves into a force where anyone can contribute, and there’s not a core group of players who are relied upon year after year to carry the rest of the team.

Hitter to watch

Mark Canha has hit .458/.480/.750 (1.230 OPS) in six games and 25 plate appearances over the past week, providing key hits against both the Astros and Yankees. Despite a game-winning home run against Tony Watson last year, he hasn’t really tormented the Giants in his career — just a .539 OPS in 50 plate appearances — and yet, after the week he’s had and his present mindset —

— he seems setup to do some damage.

Pitcher to watch

A.J. Puk is ranked #43 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Prospects list, and the A’s just called him up. He’s made one appearance, recorded just one out, while allowing a walk and a hit. The 24-year old left-hander is slated to be a frontline starting pitcher at some point, but this year has been all about slow-playing him as he returns from Tommy John.

His fastball averages 96, which he supplements with a devastating slider. He also features a changeup and curve. Dickerson, Vogt, Belt, and Yastrzemski will need to be on their toes late in the game.

Prediction

I was, perhaps, too generous with my prediction that the Giants would win one game in Chicago. That’s a team with a formidable home presence and home field advantage. The A’s have both of those and this is just a two-game series. I see no need for optimism, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be anything fun about the Giants’ two losses. Maybe Logan Webb manages to hold his own against a tough American League lineup.