Lilly in Bloom

When I went into the woods a couple of weeks ago, I predicted to a few people that based on the hairline fracture in Mark Mulder’s femur, the A’s were through. Four games behind the Mariners in the AL West, two games ahead of the Red Sox for the Wild Card, the Grim Forksman had come a-pokin'; the verdict was “done.”

The only hope for the A’s seemed to be highly touted rookie hurler Rich Harden. If Harden, who debuted in late July, could live up to his billing as a worthy addition to the Mulder-Tim Hudson-Barry Zito triumverate, the A’s might stand a chance in the fall. That prospect looked good; at the time of Mulder’s injury, Harden was 3-2 with a 3.00 ERA in six starts, five of which had been excellent.

One of the great things about baseball is that things never unfold the way we expect them to, and the A’s are now the case in point. Including that one less-than-excellent start just prior to Mulder’s injury, Harden had allowed 26 runs in his past 27.2 innings leading up to Tuesday night’s start. But the A’s have nevertheless mustered one of their patented late-season runs. Since Mulder went down, they’ve won 19 out of 26 while the Mariners have lost 14 of 24 — an 8.5 game swing in the AL West standings.

Five times through the rotation since that fateful August 19, the pitcher who’s risen to the occasion in Mulder’s absence is a suprising one: Ted Lilly, the former Yankee who left in the Jeff Weaver trade. Here’s the comparison:

       W-L   IP   ER   ERA  

Zito 2-2 33.2 17 4.54
Hudson 3-2 30.2 13 3.82
Harden 2-2 23.2 20 7.61
Lilly 5-0 29.1 4 1.23

Looking a bit more closely at Lilly’s numbers, he’s allowed 20 hits in this span, including 1 homer, walked only 7 and struck out 30. That comes out to a tidy 0.92 WHIP, a 4.3 K/W ratio, and a healthy 9.2 Ks per 9 innings. Granted, four of these five starts came against Anaheim and Tampa Bay (Toronto was the other), but talk to the Royals about the need to beat up on the dogs — whether it’s Hudson, Zito, or Lilly, somebody’s gotta get the job done.

Lilly hasn’t been pitching especially deep into ballgames, averaging just under six innings per start in this span. But neither has he been wearing himself out; his pitch counts in the five starts are 100, 98, 83, 83, and 67. On Monday night, suffering from a cold, he tossed five innings of one-hit ball before yielding to the bullpen.

Overall, Lilly’s season’s been servicable but hardly spectacular: 11-9 with a 4.33 ERA in a pitchers’ ballpark, 1.31 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.6 K/W, 1.2 HR/9. Then again, those numbers would look pretty good at the back end of the Yankee rotation in place of Jeff Weaver and his 5.91 ERA, wouldn’t they? Lilly’s picked the right time to click, and it’s looking as though the pitcher the A’s once envisioned has finally arrived.

• • •

Wild afros, oversized gloves, and snakes — oh my! These two pages of Funny and Strange Trading Cards are too good not to share. From the hat-busting hairdos of Oscar Gamble and Bake McBride to the huge mitt of Mikey Hatcher to the boa constrictor draped over Glenn Hubbard’s shoulders, some hilarious and notorious cards are here, compiled by collector Bob Torba.

Here’s Billy Martin giving a photographer the finger, Billy Ripken displaying his obscene nickname, and Claude Raymond caught with his zipper down — twice! There’s Bip Roberts wearing a sombrero. Why? Who cares! At least it looks more stylish than that furry hat Doug Drabek’s wearing.

Jose Canseco with an oversize snow shovel, looking for a place to bury his career. An unidentified Pittsburgh Pirate milking a cow. Jose Rijo on three different cards holding three different squirt guns. Andy Ashby trying out a new fishing rod. Tim Flannery holding a surfboard. Brian Jordan swinging at a football. Rex Hudler glaring psychotically. Kurt Bevacqua and Ken Griffey, Jr. blowing bubbles. The world of baseball cards doesn’t get any more surreal than this.

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