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Moneyball 2.0: The Pitching Whisperer

The Oakland A's are winning again on a shoestring budget, but this time the credit goes to a soft-spoken coach named Curt Young.



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The Angels, with a huge TV and attendance revenue stream, also purchased C.J. Wilson, a former Ranger pitcher who had his best career year in 2011, and took particular delight in tormenting and taunting the A's. ("I hate pitching there, the mound sucks, the fans suck," Wilson was quoted as saying.)

The Rangers have a budget of $120 million, and the Angels decided to pay $154 million to try and catch them. The third team in the division, the Seattle Mariners, are laying out $81 million just to hold onto bronze, while the A's looked under the cushions and in the cup holder and scraped up $55 million to apparently play ego booster to the rest of the American League.

In the early season, the A's bullpen didn't get many leads, and when it did, it failed to hold them. Grant Balfour, a 2011 holdover, was sent back to middle relief after he couldn't close. For a team with no margin for error, ninth-inning errors were gut-wrenching. Looking down the bench, Young found Ryan Cook, yet another fringe rookie prospect acquired over the winter, and essentially said, I know you just started, but we need you to finish. Cook did so for three months, and became the A's' sole representative on the American League All-Star team.

On May 21, the Athletics had dog-paddled their way to a .500 record, certainly not world-beaters, but not ready for a shroud either. Then the wheels came off. C.J. Wilson of the Angels started off the misery tour, shutting out Oakland 5-0 at his hated Coliseum. Then there were three straight losses at home to the Yankees, and when the Athletics hit the road in late May, the road hit back. The woeful Minnesota Twins beat the A's three straight, and the dismal Kansas City Royals took two of three as well.

The A's were in last place, nine games behind Texas at the start of June, and having to host the Rangers, ready, it seemed, for a knockout blow. But someone forgot to tell Jarrod Parker, who no-hit the first-place Texans for eight innings en route to the second win of his big league life. Two days later, Colon also missed the memo, and shut out Texas 2-0. On the last day of the series, Brandon McCarthy was scheduled to pitch against Yu Darvish, who had just signed a six-year, $60 million contract to pitch for Texas. With that money, Darvish could have bought the entire A's roster. What he couldn't do, though, was beat them. McCarthy's shoulder held up long enough for the A's to give him a 7-1 win, and all of a sudden, what looked like a funeral became a resurrection. McCarthy, Milone, and Cook beat the first place Los Angeles Dodgers, 3-0, 4-1, and 4-1.

A June swoon, though, found the A's back on life support, when Texas used its home ballpark advantage to take the first three games of a four-game set against the Athletics. All the hard work to stay afloat seemed to have gone for naught, as the hot A's had fallen further behind the scorching Rangers. Oakland trailed Texas by thirteen games heading into the final game of the series.

Travis Blackley was given the ball, and no videotape to watch. That night, on the first of July, Yu Darvish, the $60 million man, was beaten by a pitcher who had worn out his prospect label eight years earlier — Blackley, a 29-year-old reject whom the San Francisco Giants, Korean Tigers, and fifteen other teams had cut loose. With newfound faith in his "Gio Gonzalez curve ball" and a pitching whisperer who spoke to him in a way that nobody else ever had, he stopped the Rangers 3-1, and fairly crowed to reporters after the game. "I've got heaps of confidence. I'm just so glad somebody gave me an opportunity again."

The A's got hotter. A three-game roll over the Boston Red Sox with Jarrod Parker ($500,000) beating Daisuke Matsuzaka ($8.5 million). Then Jerry Blevins ($490,000) defeated Jon Lester ($7.3 million), and finally Grant Balfour, a relatively rich A at $4 million, finished the clean sweep. Oakland took two of three against Seattle, then flattened the Minnesota Twins three straight (A.J Griffin, yet another untested rookie, then Milone, and, finally, Parker). The A's took two of three versus the Rangers, who went out and bought another high priced pitcher to steady their ship.

Just before the All-Star break, the Yankees — once again the highest-priced and highest-profile team — came to town. But for the first time in Oakland A's history — a history that includes four World Series titles and many other glories — the Athletics, with Griffin, Cook, Parker, and Blevins, swept a four-game series. The CBS affiliate in New York wrote: "Strong pitching has led Oakland all series — all month actually."

The A's finished with one of the best Julys in baseball history, and in August, their arc continued upward. As of Monday, Oakland was nineteen games over .500, their best record since winning the American League West in 2006. The A's also led the race for the two wild-card spots.

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