ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It's crunch time in Oakland, where the Athletics remain near the top of the American League West despite the not-so-incidental fact that the bullpen is melting away before their very eyes.
While that sure makes for a fascinating case study, it also brings up some inconvenient questions.
|A's starter Tim Hudson has five no-decisions this year, after leaving with the lead in four of the games.(AP)|
Will general manager Billy Beane outrace the vultures and collect some reinforcements before either the July 31 trade deadline or his manager overdoses on Maalox, whichever comes first?
And how long is it possible for a rotation to grind its teeth down to the nubs without drawing blood, anyway?
If something doesn't give soon, we're going to get an answer to that last question first.
Oakland has been known throughout the past several seasons for having one of the loosest, closest-knit clubhouses in baseball. But the Athletics relievers, through sloppy work and blown ninth-inning opportunities, are putting the togetherness stuff through its stiffest test yet.
No other bullpen has been as spectacularly flammable as Oakland's in recent weeks -- its 48 percent conversion mark (13-for-27) is the second-worst save percentage in the AL -- and yet the relievers apparently spent much of their time during Oakland's series-opening pasting here the other night fuming behind the left-field fence about general remarks attributed to a couple of starting pitchers.
"We had two starters on this team say that the bullpen needs to step it up," Arthur Rhodes said. "You shouldn't say that. You shouldn't say that. If we lose as a team, we all lose. If we win as a team, we all win. You can't have two starters saying that.
"If you're not man enough to come to somebody on the field and tell them to do a better job, don't say in the paper that we're doing a bad job. ...
"It's one of those things where if they can do better, they can go nine innings. Let 'em go nine innings."
Though Rhodes declined to name which two starting pitchers were the focus of what he said was a main topic of the bullpen conversation during Oakland's 10-3 loss Monday night, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder last week spoke in generalities that the club's bullpen needs to step it up.
In the clubhouse following a 5-4 loss at St. Louis last week -- a game in which he departed in the eighth inning with a 3-1 lead -- Hudson told reporters: "I know the guys are trying. Sometimes trying is not enough. We've got to get it done, regardless."
In the clubhouse following a 4-3 loss to Chicago in Wrigley Field on Saturday -- a game he left after the eighth inning with a 3-2 lead -- Mulder told reporters: "The bullpen's struggling. Someone's got to step up and make good pitches."
Rhodes was not with the team during either of those two losses because he was attending his uncle's funeral in Texas. He said he learned of the comments during the discussion in the bullpen here Monday night.
"Everybody in the bullpen got mad about it," said Rhodes, whom Oakland signed to be its closer last winter and who has since been removed from the role after converting only nine of 14 save opportunities. "Among the both of them, they've probably got seven years in the big leagues, total. I've got 13. They don't have any business saying that."
Hudson is in his fifth major-league season. Mulder is in his fourth.
"It (ticks) you off, players talking behind your back," Rhodes said.
The ninth-inning failures, a problem all season, have been an increasing frustration lately. Oakland's 'pen blew four save opportunities in nine games between June 9 and 19. Manager Ken Macha met with his starters last week to ask them to be patient and to tell them not to try to push it further than usual to cover up for the late-innings weaknesses.
"The thing that's disappointing to me is we've had some tremendous starts," Macha said Tuesday. "Hudson, Mulder, these guys are going out and pitching their guts out and we can't get it done.
"Hopefully, we'll work our way through this. We just brought up (Justin) Lehr (from Triple-A Sacramento)."
Veteran reliever Chris Hammond said he spoke with the two starters in question following Monday night's game -- like Rhodes, he declined to identify them -- and he downplayed the friction.
"They don't want to do anything to mix up the chemistry in the clubhouse," Hammond said. "They don't want to do that. That's the last thing they want to do, get different parts of the clubhouse mad at each other.
"There's already enough pressure on the bullpen as it is without adding pressure because guys are dogging them."
Mulder brushed off any animosity when asked about the relievers' sensitivity and Hammond's talk with him.
"We're going to struggle as starters some, too," Mulder said. "We struggled earlier in the season. Blown saves happen. They've happened the last couple of years, even, when we had closers (Keith Foulke last year and Billy Koch two summers ago, to name two).
"Guys are trying. We said the same thing when Chavy (third baseman Eric Chavez) got hurt. Everybody needs to step it up."
Hammond, meanwhile, has his own problems. He was placed on the disabled list this week with a strained left shoulder, a move retroactive to June 12.
Hammond attributes the injury to overuse, an issue he says he addressed with Macha last week.
"I was pitching once a week, and all of a sudden I pitched four out of five days and my arm wasn't in that kind of shape," Hammond said, referring to a stretch of games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the second week of June in which he appeared frequently because Oakland needed a lefty reliever.
Hammond said he finally told Macha before the first game of a trip in St. Louis last Tuesday that his arm was hurting and he was unavailable.
"You know what, if you take the number of pitches he threw, it wasn't crazy," Macha said of Hammond's four-games-in-five-days stretch. "He did have a 10-day period in which he got in once, then he did pitch four times in five days. That was the toughest part."
During the run, from June 7-11, Hammond threw 11, 24, 13 and 18 pitches in the four games.
"I've let other pitchers pitch four times in five days," Macha said. "He had an 11-pitch inning, and maybe his longest outing was 24 pitches.
"It's unfortunate, but at that particular time, we were playing the Cincinnati Reds and they've got Ken Griffey, Adam Dunn and Sean Casey swinging from the left side. At the time, Ricardo Rincon had a sore back and Arthur was closing.
"I always ask everybody how they're feeling before games, and he said he was fine."
In the wake of leaks throughout the bullpen, Macha has been left with nowhere to turn. While Rhodes pitched himself out of the closer's role, Jim Mecir has blown two of four save opportunities, Hammond and Chad Bradford each are 1-for-3 in save situations, Rincon is 0-for-2 and Justin Duchscherer is 0-for-1. Right now, it's pretty much a free-for-all.
The Athletics' starters, meanwhile, led all AL rotations with a 3.68 ERA entering Tuesday night's games and led the majors with six complete games.
But even those six complete games haven't been enough to seal off a larger share of victories in the A's 69 games. Oakland stood at 38-31 -- in third place -- following Tuesday night's 6-1 loss to the Angels.
"It's hard to talk about," Hammond said of the bullpen struggles. "It's a lot easier when guys have roles. I was talking with Bradford, and it's hard to prepare yourself as a reliever not knowing when you're going to pitch.
|Arthur Rhodes has been vocal in responding to criticism of the Oakland bullpen. (Getty Images)|
Rhodes, too, expressed frustration at the undefined roles.
"We're sitting out there and whenever the phone rings, whoever's getting into the game, it's just do your best," Rhodes said. "That's all I can say. Do your best and try to keep your head up."
When he was in Atlanta in 2002, Hammond said, in games in which the Braves were leading, he often would be stretching and heading to the bullpen mound to loosen up as the seventh inning began even before the call from the dugout telling him to warm up. It was that choreographed, he said.
But as things have deteriorated in Oakland's bullpen, these A's are a far cry from Atlanta's NL East champion 'pen in 2002. It's difficult to keep relievers in roles when they fumble those roles. Rhodes' failure as a consistent closer had a dramatic trickle-down effect.
"Foulke last year settled them in their roles," Macha said. "You were able to give them rest and put them in places where they could succeed."
The surprise, perhaps, shouldn't be that the Oakland starters have been speaking through gritted teeth lately. Perhaps it should be that they have bit their tongues for so long. Hudson (7-3) has five no-decisions this season -- and he has departed with the lead in four of those games, only to have a blown save sabotage the Athletics.
Mulder swears that no matter what happens, no matter how many more excruciating ninth innings Oakland endures while attempting to keep pace with loaded Anaheim and surprising Texas in the AL West, there will be no civil war in the clubhouse.
"Not on this team," Mulder said. "It won't happen. It hasn't happened. This clubhouse is too good."
Given the past track records of veterans such as Hammond, Mecir and himself, Rhodes says it is only a matter of time until the bullpen begins pitching better.
Then, Rhodes said, let's see what the rotation says.
"You start throwing zeroes for two or three months, and what are they going to say then?" Rhodes said. "They'll come and kiss our butts and say we're so much better.
"Well, no, you can never forget what was said by your teammates."
Unlike Hammond, Rhodes said he had not spoken to the offending starters -- and doesn't plan to.
"But if it comes up again, it's not going to be a pretty sight," Rhodes vowed. "If it comes up again, I won't be nice."