A's hitting their stride

June the 9th, 2004. It might be a date that means nothing at all. Or it might be the date on which the Oakland Athletics grabbed first place for good.

The A's got off to a good start this season, winning eight of their first 12 games. But then they lost 11 of their next 15, and ever since they've been trying to catch the front-running Anaheim Angels. Since that losing stretch dropped their record to 12-15, the A's have won 22 of 31. Tuesday night the A's caught the Angels, and Wednesday night they passed them.

Should we be surprised? I picked the A's to win the West, so I'm not particularly surprised. And I'm not shy about repeating my prediction. Even before the Angels suffered their rash of injuries, I thought the A's were the best team in the division. Now that they're in first place and the Angels are so thin, it looks as though the Athletics might just run away and hide.


The bullpen, usually a happy place for the A's, hasn't been so happy in 2004. Long man Justin Duchscherer (pronounced DOOK-shur, by the way) has pitched brilliantly (at least before Wednesday night, when he gave up a couple of long homers), but everybody else has been shaky. With a 3.98 ERA, Oakland's relievers rank just seventh in the American League, which isn't bad but isn't good, either.

Closer Arthur Rhodes has pitched worse than his 4.01 ERA, and veteran lefties Chris Hammond (4.97 ERA) and especially Ricardo Rincon (6.14) have pitched as poorly as theirs. But we're not talking about a lot of innings, and if GM Billy Beane decides he has to get better in the bullpen, he's got a great number of options at Triple-A Sacramento, where starters Joe Blanton and Mike Wood, and closer Justin Lehr, all have big-league arms and big-league abilities. All of which is to say, the bullpen's more likely to get better than worse.

(The rotation, as usual, has been fantastic. Oakland's five starters 1) haven't missed a turn, and 2) have the best ERA, by a wide margin, in the American League. Barry Zito's been the worst of them, at least in terms of ERA, but his strikeout rate is excellent so there's reason for optimism. Maybe the loss of pitching coach Rick Peterson is going to show up in the numbers at some point ... but, so far so good.)

Just as in 2003, in 2004 the A's aren't getting much production from their outfielders. No, it's not as bad as last season, when three of the four outfielders didn't do anything at all (notwithstanding Jose Guillen's contributions after he joined the club in late July). This season, Eric Byrnes is again performing well, and the A's have benefited from the long-awaited return to form by Jermaine Dye.

But Beane made two offseason moves to bolster the outfield, and neither has really worked out, as both Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay have been non-productive if not quite disastrous. In the interests of fending off the Angels and the Rangers and finally winning a postseason series, Beane has to at least consider adding a productive outfielder. That might be Nick Swisher, currently down in Sacramento. Or it might be Carlos Beltran; Beane likes to make at least one #%&@-A trade per season, and if Eric Chavez recovers nicely, center field is really the only hole in the lineup.

All that's picking at nits, though. Nobody's perfect. The A's got off to a slow start, but now the offense looks just fine. After pounding the Reds during a three-game sweep, the A's have now scored 291 runs, which ties them for eighth-most in the league. That doesn't look so good until you realize the White Sox lead the league with 314 runs. That's right: only 23 runs separate the top nine run-scoring teams in the American League.

And the Angels? They need to get healthy, and quickly. Entering this season, the Seraphs had two big question marks: the long-term health of a few key players, and the returning starting pitchers.

Those question marks have, at least to some extent, been answered in the negative. Oft-injured Darin Erstad is injured (even though switching to first base was supposed to magically keep him healthy and improve his anemic hitting stats). Oft-injured Troy Glaus is injured, and will miss the rest of the season. Oft-injured Tim Salmon has been injured for most of the season, and just returned to the lineup last night (though probably not for long, if history's any guide). And Garret Anderson, who's always been a healthy sort, is disabled with (of all things) arthritis.

As for the returning starters, one of them (Ramon Ortiz) has already lost his spot in the rotation, and the other two (John Lackey and Jarrod Washburn) have been almost identically lousy. Meanwhile, Bartolo Colon, the $11 million man, has been even lousier than Lackburn. The only things saving the Angels' pitching staff from complete disaster have been the surprisingly good work of Aaron Sele (4-0, 3.26) and the not-so-surprisingly great work of relievers Kevin Gregg, Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields.

It's only June the 9th, so there's still a whole lot of baseball left. But while the A's are right where they want to be, the Angels have a whole lot of getting better ahead of them, if they're going to win all those games their $102 million payroll says they should.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.