They were 4 1/2 games out on the occasion of the first pitch last night at Memorial Stadium, a fourth straight division title still very much a possibility, but they were just six games over .500 and they'd blown a game in Cleveland the night before and now another pitcher was injured, and you couldn't help but begin to wonder if the pieces were ever going to fit this season.
That's a crazy assumption to make about the Oakland A's, of course, because while there have been nights this season when the injuries have added up to a lineup resembling a practical joke -- Riles, Law, Quirk, Bordick, Komminsk, Blankenship, these are the A's? -- they are still an electric millionaires club capable of finding a higher gear and making instant mush of the rest of the division.
You hear that a lot around clubhouses these days: just wait until the A's get things back together. Could be a long wait, though. Maybe, maybe not. See, Carney Lansford went home the other day because his leg was hurting, and Mike Moore went on the disabled list with a groin pull and Dave Stewart and Bob Welch just aren't pitching to 20-win form, and, well, as they said in vaudeville, "You can't keep those plates spinning forever."
"You like the idea of a challenge because you have to dig deep and see what's in there," manager Tony La Russa said last night, "but this is the deepest we've had to dig in a while. I'm not going to say there aren't times when you feel like you're over your head. But here we are. Not in bad position after all this."
No. It's funny, the A's have put a player on the disabled list 15 times this season, and they found themselves six games behind the Twins the other day, hadn't been that far out of first since 1987, the last year they didn't win the division, but in the end it really doesn't mean a thing. It's just too early still, and Jose Canseco is hitting a home run a night now and it is still Stewart and Welch and Rickey and Eck and, well . . .
"You can't think about going through adversity, because everyone does," La Russa said. "Think the Orioles wish they had Glenn Davis? The fact is we would be in exactly the same situation if we were five games up now instead of five down. The goal is to reach Sept. 1 with a chance to win the division. We're hanging in there."
Yes. But still, it's a strange predicament in which to find baseball's most galvanic collection of players, particularly when
they were supposed to return with such venom this season after being swept in the World Series a year ago. But for them, 1991 has been a long, strange trip.
Lansford, the consummate No. 2 hitter, tore up his knee riding a snowmobile. Gene Nelson, the right-handed setup man, broke a finger when a line drive hit him in the dugout. Walt Weiss, the shortstop, tore up his ankle horribly running to first. The left-handed set-up man, Rick Honeycutt, hurt his shoulder. His replacement, Joe Klink, missed a month when a line drive hit his foot.
Sheesh. And suddenly the A's are 12th in the league in pitching instead of first and Stewart and Welch may win half as many games as a year ago, and Mark McGwire is hitting .190, and Rickey Henderson's average has dropped 50 points, and it all adds up, and you wake up one day and you're looking up at in the standings at the Texas Rangers.
"There have been nights when we haven't hit or pitched or defended as well [as before]," La Russa said. "I could try to explain why but it sounds like I'm making an excuse. 'We're different people out there.' So I don't try to explain it. The best thing to do is just zip it. Zip it and keep going."
They kept going last night, but only for a while and Ernest Riles hit a grand slam and Canseco hit another homer and it was a lot like last year for a while. But the news on the scoreboard was not good, the Twins winning again, so what do you do? You just keep zipping it and keep going.
Will the A's, indeed, put it all back together? They're holding together better than the collapsing Reds, but Stewart was shaky last night and the bullpen was awful and another rookie starts tonight, so you don't know what will happen. All you can do it wait and watch. The story was not supposed to twist and turn this way, though. As Lou Grant often said, "Who wrote this stuff?"