A’s struggle to find game, identity 

OAKLAND — They are a team of spare parts and second chances, a band of misfits and no-names cobbled together by a rock-star general manager who shuffled his roster with reckless abandon during the offseason. But over the course of the past week, the A's have been through an emotional roller coaster that leaves one wondering whether their season will eventually blossom into another year of overachievement, or whether they might have finally reached a breaking point.

It began when emotions flared in Kansas City last weekend during a three-game series against the Royals, one that devolved into a series of dramatic standoffs straight out of a pro wrestling arena. It ended with the A's getting swept at home by the Houston Astros. In between, the A's continued to insist they were targeted unfairly after Brett Lawrie's hard slide into second base led to a series of back-and-forths that either adhered to or violated the so-called unwritten rules of baseball, depending on one's viewpoint. In a clubhouse where most of the players have been cast off at least once, on a team that's been struggling to achieve consistency in the early going, this was the kind of dramatic event that seemingly could have served as a catalyst.

"I think a lot of people don't understand — when you play the game hard, things happen" veteran infielder Ben Zobrist said. "It made us all the more frustrated with the situation after that."

Instead, the A's dropped to 8-12 on Sunday following a 7-6 loss to the Astros on Evan Gattis' two-run, ninth-inning double. Serious questions still remain.

Lawrie's hard slide into Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, of course, was the impetus for a series of confrontations both harrowing slightly comedic in execution and interpretation: Lawrie apparently attempted to text an apology to Escobar, but appears to have sent it to the wrong number. Lawrie was then hit in the elbow by the Royals' Yordano Ventura, an unsurprising retaliation that, to Lawrie's credit, he reacted to almost nonchalantly.

But a week ago Sunday, after Scott Kazmir hit the Royals' Lorenzo Cain in the foot with a pitch, teammate Kelvin Herrera threw a ball behind Lawrie then pointed at his head. Lawrie took this to mean that Herrera was implying he'd throw at his head the next time Herrera insisted he was telling Lawrie to "use his head" next time. By the end of that Sunday, five Royals had been ejected, while none of the A's were, and Lawrie was publicly berating the Royals and their fans.

"We've always had a lot of personalities in this clubhouse from the start," Zobrist said. "But this was the first time you saw that side of their personality, when everybody gets upset over ridiculous things that shouldn't happen on a ballfield. You see this sense of justice from a team come forward. It's unfortunate for the game that you've got guys [on the Royals] who should know how to take care of themselves on the field."

The rematch is two months away, on June 26-28, and by then, the A's season might veer in one of two directions. By then, it's possible the bad blood cultivated last week in Kansas City against the Royals might have faded into a distant memory. But the whole incident spearheaded by Lawrie, himself a castoff from the Toronto Blue Jays, fit the character of a franchise that has long been known for its outsider's nature, for the notion that it has to claw for every advantage it can get, that it can never let down if it hopes to keep up with the rest of its division. "If anything," catcher Stephen Vogt said, "we were just reminded of how professional Brett Lawrie is, and what a competitor he is."

If anyone has come to represent the spirit of this A's club in the early going, it's Vogt, a 30-year-old who had fewer than 500 plate appearances in his career heading into this season. In the midst of overhauling virtually the entire roster, general manager Billy Beane traded away two other catchers, Derek Norris and John Jaso, to clear the way for Vogt to play. He has rewarded Beane and manager Bob Melvin by hitting .364 with four home runs in his first 17 games of the year.

"He's never really gotten a full-time opportunity," Melvin said of Vogt. "For me, he's been one of the best catchers in the league up to this point."

This is what the A's do, Melvin said. They offer opportunities to players who might not have had those opportunities in other places. But the question remains as to whether Beane assembled a team full of overachievers or whether he tinkered too much with a roster that is now full of unrecognizable names.

It's unclear if the A's have the overarching talent to compete in the AL West, but at least for the moment, the division appears wide open, every team hovering around the .500 mark. If they can gather themselves — if they can become more consistent, and put the Houston series behind them — and if the Royals series eventually serves as a reflection of both what the A's are and aren't, then there's reason to believe they could once again prove Beane's reputation for chasing bargains is still intact.

But if things fall apart, if contentiousness and defeat proves to be the norm, then perhaps this might prove to be the year Billy Beane finally outsmarted himself.

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Michael Weinreb

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