The bad news is that Oakland's a good team that's just beginning to learn how terrifying its best 9-man lineup can be. The good news is that Oakland's strong bullpen is thoroughly depleted and the Jays avoid Dan Haren.
Tonight's starting pitcher is ex-Red Sox lefty Lenny DiNardo, making his seventh start of the year after a very good run in Oakland's bullpen as their Scott Downs. Here is the book on DiNardo from Theo Epstein via Sox Prospects: "DiNardo is a very crafty lefty. His stuff does not blow you away, but he really knows how to pitch. He changes speeds, he has a good changeup, he's tough on righties with his changeup. If he sticks, it will be as a left-handed long guy. A guy to turn a lineup around." He also throws a slop curveball. DiNardo's cut fastball hovers around 80. Eight zero. Like Shaun Marcum's changeup, and nobody's ever called that guy overpowering, at least not in the traditional sense. But DiNardo has been extremely effective for the A's; he sports a 2.47 ERA and very high groundball rate.
DiNardo had a HR/Fly rate in the 20s last year and a .372 BABIP pitching in Fenway, possibly the worst place on earth to be a lefty who tops out in the low 80s. His emergence appears to be fueled by nothing more than good luck replacing very bad luck and a favorable park replacing a very unfavorable one (it's definitely not a product of strikeouts and walks). It's an illustration of why it's almost always wise to regress those two particular stats toward 11% and .300 respectively when predicting a pitcher's future, and regress 'em good. The guy DiNardo's facing tonight is one instance of a pitcher who is a very good candidate for a similarly shocking turnaround in 2008, if not the next three months.
To a man, the Jays owned DiNardo last year, with only one exception: Lyle Overbay, who was made to look hopelessly inept every time up on the way to a 0-5 line with 3 strikeouts. The Jays should aim to get on base at all costs and knock DiNardo out as swiftly as possible to put a heavy workload on Oakland's pen in the first game of the series.
It gets more difficult tomorrow. Joe Blanton will be the toughest obstacle the Jays' bats face this series. Blanton is a big, hard-throwing control pitcher in the midst of a breakout season. He gives the bottom of the strike zone a beating. He throws in the low 90s and has four good pitches, particularly his 12-6 curve which is a big strikeout threat. For what it's worth Blanton threw a large quantity of changeups to lefties in obvious fastball counts in the one start I saw. The Jays' most successful hitter against Blanton has been one Reed Johnson. Vernon Wells is 5-15 with a homer and a walk.
The second Joe the Jays face is Joe Kennedy, the lefty who defeated them 1-0 on Tony Fernandez Day in 2001. There are two important things about Joe Kennedy: down, and away. He's a trashball lefty in the same mold as DiNardo, except he throws much harder and therefore has a greater velocity difference between his 90ish fastball and his breaking stuff. Like DiNardo, though, his K/BB numbers are not good, and his groundball tendencies are the #1 cause of his success. Vernon Wells is 4-27 with 4 walks and a homer against Kennedy. Jason Phillips is 1-1 with a double and 2 walks, and Wednesday's game is a matinee after a night game, and Curtis Thigpen is apparently banned from starting at catcher, so...
Oakland's bullpen is banged up. Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero are all on the disabled list. In their place are a bunch of lefties. Alan Embree has been used as a closer, while live-armed righty Santiago Casilla is the A's top fireman; both pitched yesterday. Casilla has been a major revelation this year, as he's finally overcome the walk problems that troubled him in each of his last three shots at pitching in the majors. They also have this Canadian kid, Rich Harden, who throws real hard and has a nasty splitter. He's pitched very well in a couple of relief appearances after returning from injury and might go for the save tonight if the opportunity arises. The A's pen is full of flyball pitchers, with one notable exception: lefty Jay Marshall. Gregg Zaun, Matt Stairs and Lyle Overbay are huge DP threats against Marshall.
Then there's the guy I'm really looking forward to seeing. Dallas Braden, a 23-year-old lefty out of Texas Tech who rocketed to the majors on the strength of his screwball. He had a run as a starter earlier this year and was recently recalled from the minors to strengthen the bullpen. "Braden's strong start" on this page is a video of him making a bunch of righthanded Devil Rays swing at air.
The A's lineup looks prepared to become a second-half juggernaut like it usually is, thanks to unexpected contributions from Jack Cust and Dan Johnson. For the benefit of those who live under rocks, the A's acquired the comically powerful Cust this offseason and gave him a shot at DHing when the injured Mike Piazza got injured. They have been justly rewarded, as Cust is playing up to his potential and beyond. The line in the chart speaks for itself.
Shannon Stewart, uncharacteristically bad in 2005 and injured in 2006, was a nice buy-low for the A's this year. For $1M, they have a leftfielder who's a professional hitter and OBP machine who isn't hurt too much by hitting in Oakland. The A's are sacrificing a bit of defense to get him into the lineup everyday, but such is life.
With Travis Buck, Bobby Kielty and (surprise!) Chris Snelling hurt, line-drive-hitting stud catcher prospect Kurt Suzuki, vet outfielder Dee Brown and hustling infielder Donnie Murphy have been called up to comprise the bench.
The Credit Section: All offensive stats, pitches per PA for pitchers and league average stats are from the Hardball Times. Pitchers' stats and leverage indices are from Fangraphs. Minor-league stats are from Minor League Splits. K% and BB% are strikeouts and walks as a percentage of plate appearances; GB% + LD% + FB% = 100.