Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: A’s lack an identity since Cespedes left

O Right now, the A’s seem lost. They seem distant and remote. They seem to lack the kind of identity that most playoff-bound teams find and exploit at this time of year.

If the A’s have a soul, it was missing Wednesday in a 2-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners that continued Oakland’s soul-crushing slide in the American League West standings.

They are now 41/2 games behind the division-leading Los Angeles Angels with 23 games left in the season and only three of those against the team they are falling further and further behind.

Instead of surging, the A’s are sleepwalking at crunch time in a fashion that makes you wonder:

Did they make the mistake of trading their soul and heartbeat when they dealt wondrous outfielder Yoenis Cespedes for Wednesday’s hard-luck loser, Jon Lester?

I know. This is the type of question that rankles a fan base worshipful of Oakland’s numbers-based formula of baseball, where metrics matter more than individuals. It’s the type of question anathema to baseball pundits who defend A’s GM Billy Beane against all scrutiny.

Beane had a chance to get Lester and “improve” the A’s, but only by parting with Cespedes – the A’s cleanup hitter. So Beane pulled the trigger on July 31 to create a super A’s rotation to match any in baseball.

Except that Oakland has dropped like a rock ever since.

The A’s were 12-17 in August without Cespedes, the first losing month for the team in two years.

They are 13-19 overall since Cespedes went to Boston, including losing seven of the last nine games. In 23 games, Oakland has gone from being four games ahead of the Angels to being 41/2 games behind.

Beane apologists will say the A’s were already slumping when Cespedes was sent packing. They will say starters Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray have faltered lately – that poor starting pitching has contributed to the A’s woes as much as anything else.

Lester, who surely will leave the A’s to free agency when the season is over, has actually pitched very well in seven starts with the A’s. He hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in a game but also hasn’t won in nearly a month – since Aug. 12.

Lester was very good Wednesday. The problem was, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was better. Lester’s sterling pitching was wiped out by Oakland’s almost total lack of offense.

Except for an Adam Dunn solo home run, all the A’s could muster were two soft singles. The price of paying for Lester – losing Cespedes – outweighed the benefits Lester was supposed to bring to the A’s.

Baseball is a funny game.

Maybe there is still a switch that will be flipped by the A’s. Maybe a team that is still 19 games above .500 is simply going through an ordinary dry spell before numeric order is restored.

Maybe …

But after getting swept in four straight by the Angels last weekend, this series against Seattle was supposed to be where the A’s got better. It didn’t happen.

A’s manager Bob Melvin is obviously not down with the listless play he is seeing every day. He called out his players after Sunday’s dismal blowout loss to the Angels. The A’s brass responded to Oakland’s lack of punch by adding Dunn – who responded by hitting two home runs since donning the green and gold.

But the losses have continued and the clock is ticking. The questions about going for a wild-card berth instead of the division title have begun, though Melvin wants nothing to do with them.

“We have a lot of games left,” Melvin said Wednesday. “We’re all about winning Friday’s game (against Houston).”

It doesn’t help that leadoff man Coco Crisp, Oakland’s best player since Cespedes was traded, is nursing a neck injury.

It doesn’t help that Josh Donaldson, the A’s All-Star third baseman, was AWOL in three games against Seattle.

Donaldson was 0 for 4 on Wednesday. Josh Reddick was 0 for 3. The A’s first four hitters in the lineup were 1 for 15 against Hernandez. Once Lester gave up back-to-back home runs in the seventh inning, all the air seemed to go out of the A’s cavernous stadium.

The stakes were high. The response was muted. Dunn waved at strike three to end it. The stadium was quiet.

It didn’t feel like playoff implications. It felt like a slow leak of energy and urgency.

The A’s are still in the driver’s seat for the wild-card spot as they lose sight of the Angels. It is still far more likely that they will make the playoffs for the third year in a row.

But something is missing in this team since Cespedes left – a swagger, a confidence, an undeniable identity that rises in games that would otherwise be lost.

The A’s have 23 games to find it in another form, or risk having the story of this season be how they traded their soul away and came slowly undone.