A's Rookies Keep Loose Under Playoff Pressure
OAKLAND—Rookies are supposed to crack under pressure. That is the reputation; that has long been the expectation around baseball.
As A.J. Griffin prepared for the most important start of his young career, he was ready to crack a smile. Then he cracked a few jokes, and it seemed as if he were no more nervous than if he were pitching to neighborhood kids back in his hometown of El Cajon, near San Diego, rather than in an elimination game for the A's in the American League Divisional Series.
"We're having a good time, and we're just going out there and playing the best ball we can," Griffin said.
"I just feel we're a cool, calm and collected group of guys right now, and we're just looking forward to going out there and giving the fans something to be proud of."
He really is that cool, believe it or not, as he prepares for tonight's Game 4 of the ALDS Series, with the Tigers holding a two games to one advantage in the best-of-five elimination.
Griffin is one of a dozen rookies on the A's roster for the ALDS, and one of three rookies starting pitchers who will work in the series. The A's 12 rookies shatters the previous record of nine on a postseason roster set by the 2007 Diamondbacks, who were also managed by A's skipper Bob Melvin.
"Yeah, we're young, but that's the beauty of it," Griffin said. "We're just a bunch of young guys just going out playing ball."
The Tigers won the first two games of the series in Detroit before it moved to Oakland. Brett Anderson, the only non-rookie in the rotation despite being only 24, threw six shutout innings before rookie relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Cook each put up a zero. Veteran Grant Balfour then finished the 2-0 victory with a shutout ninth.
Anderson had been sidelined since September 19 by a strained oblique muscle, but he fought hard to return for this start. "It wasn't great, but there's not much you can do about it," Anderson said of the continual pain in his stomach muscle. "It's more annoying than anything else. But you're not going to worry about your oblique when you have to face a Triple Crown winner (Miguel Cabrera) or Prince Fielder. You just have to put it away and try to get the hitter out."
The A's are too young and too inexperienced by baseball standards to be expected to do much in the postseason, but this has been a team that has defied the odds all year. They won the final six games of the season — including a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers — to capture the American League West Division title. And they rose from a seeming stupor to put together the best record in the league after the All-Star break.
But these A's do not behave as typical rookies: they are more like kids playing in a summer league game, having fun and simply savoring the opportunity to play baseball.
"He really enjoys pitching," Melvin said of Griffin. "Certain guys are kind of happy-go-lucky out there. He's one of those guys that really has fun and enjoys pitching. You could see that from the first game he pitched for us."
When he was reminded that he pitched in the California League playoffs last year, he cracked, "The California League and the Major Leagues are pretty comparable." He smiled, then later added. "I didn't have a press conference this time last year."
Griffin well reflects a happy-go-lucky atmosphere that surrounds the young A's. It is not the intense pressure of a New York or Boston, and the inexperienced players thrive in the situation.
"These guys want to have fun," said veteran team leader Jonny Gomes. "I've played with young guys who are just happy to be in the big leagues. They can sit on the bench for 162 games and be happy. These guys want to have fun by winning; they want to have fun by hitting the walkoff.
"You take the fun away from this team, you have nothing."
This has been as summer of pies in the face and players doing a strange dance called the Bernie Lean, where they lean back and sort of shake their shoulders in the dugout—it's a spoof of the dead title character from the 1989 movie "Weekend At Bernie's". It helps that the veteran team leaders, such as Gomes and Brandon Inge, come off as being as wacky as the youngsters surrounding them.
In addition to rookie starters and relievers, the Athletics have been using rookies at catcher (Derek Norris), third base (Josh Donaldson) and left field (Yoenis Cespedes). Donaldson had two hits last night, and Cespedes singled home a run and made a lunging, tumbling catch to steal a hit from Cabrera.
Doolittle struck out all three batters he faced in the eighth, throwing 12 pitches — all four-seam fastballs. "I didn't want to speed up their bats," he said with a smile.
The pressures of the playoffs did not seem to afflict the A's young starters in the first two games in Detroit. Jarrod Parker pitched effectively in a 3-1 loss to Justin Verlander. Then Tommy Milone allowed only one run over six innings before giving way tot he bullpen, which eventually lost 5-4.
"I thought I would have a few more butterflies; I thought I would be more amped up," Milone said. "But when I got out there, I didn't feel any difference."
Instead, Milone retained his composure and never cracked under the pressure. "If I try to do too much, if I try to throw harder, that's when I start missing spots and putting balls over the plate. I think it's just a confidence factor: you have the confidence in yourself and you shouldn't get nervous."
And, oddly, there is no sense of nervousness about the A's. Just young guys having a good time playing ball. It is more like a college atmosphere than than the typical intensity of the big leagues. Perhaps that is how it should be for a team so filled with rookies.