He was happy and healthy then, enjoying his first go-around in the American League as a designated hitter. Who would have imagined during that first May series, as he entered a game against the Red Sox on a 9-for-23 binge, that a move designed to reduce the wear and tear on Piazza's body would result in a baserunning accident at third base?
"It was a freak thing," said Piazza on Wednesday, more than four months after Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell sprained the AC joint in Piazza's right shoulder while diving for a tag. "It was an accident. I wish, going back, it didn't happen. But that's not life. Things happen and you have to deal with them. It's just the way it is."
Crack, crack, crack. Piazza whipped his bat through the zone, launching batting-practice offerings high and deep into the black tarp beyond center. Although the emergence of Jack Cust has given Piazza the option of extra rest, Oakland manager Bob Geren has had few qualms about giving the 39-year-old former star catcher regular at-bats.
Piazza started and batted cleanup on Wednesday.
"[The injury] hasn't affected his swing at all, in my opinion," said Geren during batting practice at Fenway Park. "You watch him today, [and] he's hitting balls as far as anybody can hit them."
"It's good to hit," said Piazza, owner of a .281 average in 53 games since the injury, with six home runs. "I still haven't been able to throw as effectively as I would've liked. ... I feel like I've been swinging the bat pretty well at times since then."
Oakland's two-game series in Boston, which closed out the team's 2007 road schedule, also gave Piazza the opportunity to catch up with Lowell on Tuesday. The two veterans routinely crossed paths in the National League East, once sharing a flight to the All-Star Game.
"I talked to Mike," Piazza said. "He felt bad about the whole thing. But, you know, the game is a game. You don't really think; you react. And that's what we're trained to do."
In Geren's eyes, the A's preseason decision to invest $8.5 million in Piazza has paid off, regardless.
"It's unfortunate he missed so many games," Geren said, "but he has given us a lot of intangible things, really, that are going to help us for years to come: the things he does on the field, what he says, how he is around the clubhouse with the young guys. They'll always remember the things that he said."
Gaudin's troubles: One day after watching him walk his way out of a promising start, Geren reflected on Chad Guadin's recent problems.
Gaudin, a 24-year-old right-hander from New Orleans, just missed the All-Star Game after going 8-3 with a 2.88 ERA in the first half. Since then, he has gone 3-10 with a 6.80 ERA.
"It's the location of pitches," Geren said. "It really is. I watched the whole game last night, from the TV ... the location just wasn't there. His fastball, velocity, movement on his fastball, [and] his breaking ball haven't really changed."
Ellis' spectacular year: To denizens of love-struck Boston, which has embraced the Red Sox's Dustin Pedroia during his AL potential Rookie of the Year campaign at second base, Oakland's Mark Ellis might seem an unlikely candidate for similarly effusive praise.
"I feel like I've said it a hundred times," Geren said. "I really do believe [Ellis] is the best second baseman in baseball."
Ellis, who roomed with better-known Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein at the University of Florida, has blossomed into a second baseman with 20-homer power (he currently sits at 19 round-trippers) and 76 RBIs.
But Geren said, "he does things you can't necessarily put numbers on."
"He's always in the right place on every play," the manager said. "First-and-third defense, bunts, relays, throwing to the right bases, not throwing when there's no play, not trying to turn two when there's no play, not forcing anything. There's things that go beyond statistics that he does well."
To those who do affix statistics to such aspects of performance, Ellis would acquit himself just fine. The sabermetricians of Baseball Prospectus estimate that Ellis has saved approximately 22 "fielding runs" more than the average player at his position, a staggering figure that, if widely recognized and proven as an accurate measure of performance, would likely guarantee him an AL Gold Glove Award.
Based largely on that performance in the field, Ellis is worth 7 1/2 "wins above a replacement-level player," making him, according to Baseball Prospectus, the most valuable member of the Oakland A's.
Embree's return: Geren confirmed on Wednesday that reliever Alan Embree would rejoin the A's in Oakland on Friday after dealing with a family issue. Embree will be ready to pitch.
On deck: In a battle of potential AL Cy Young candidates, Dan Haren and John Lackey, both making their last starts of the regular season, will square off in Oakland on Friday at 7:05 p.m. PT. The Athletics' three-game series against the Angels will be their last of the season.
Alex McPhillips is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less