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07/29/08 2:04 AM ET

Young Athletics lineup shut down

Lefty Braden allows pair of two-run homers in loss to KC

OAKLAND -- As the A's have been grinding toward Thursday's Trade Deadline, their rapid decline in the American League West standings has been overshadowed to a degree by the growing number of players wondering if they'll be around Friday.

Pitchers Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Chad Gaudin already are gone. If the various rumors circulating over the weekend result in actual deals, Huston Street, Justin Duchscherer, Mark Ellis and Alan Embree -- just to name a handful -- will soon join the legion of Athletics traded away since Dan Haren was sent to the Diamondbacks last December.

But even if general manager Billy Beane doesn't pull the trigger on another trade, the message he sent with the Haren trade applies now more than ever. A strong first few months of the season masked it for a while, but this is a team very much in transition.

That was abundantly clear with a simple glance at the lineup card Monday night before Oakland dropped another game in the standings -- the AL West-leading Angels are again 12 up on the third-place A's -- with a 4-2 loss to the visiting Royals.

Three rookies (Eric Patterson, Carlos Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney) started in the outfield, another at third base (Brooks Conrad).

At first base (Jack Hannahan), catcher (Kurt Suzuki) and designated hitter (Jack Cust), were players looking to complete their first full season in the Majors.

Starting pitcher Dallas Braden? He made Oakland's Opening Day roster, was sent down to Triple-A Sacramento without having made an appearance for the A's, was called back up April 22, sent back down May 7, called back up May 19, sent back down June 7 and called back up July 8.

That left only shortstop Bobby Crosby and second baseman Ellis as the only starters who opened the 2007 season with the A's, and there's an excellent chance that Ellis, a free-agent-to-be, won't be around for 2009.

Might inexperience be part of the problems of late?

"I think that has a lot to do with it," Ellis said. "I can only speak for myself, but I don't think about [trade rumors] one bit."

There were a handful of bright spots to behold Monday. Suzuki continued his torrid hitting, going 3-for-3 to boost his batting average over his past 36 games to .391 (50-for-128). And Gonzalez went 2-for-4 with his 18th double since being called up from Sacramento on May 30 and is batting .347 (17-for-49) over his past 13 games.

But the rest of Oakland's offense continued the trend of taking U-turns at the plate. The A's struck out 12 times Monday, and they've struck out at least 10 times in half of their past dozen games.

"Tonight wasn't our best night, that's for sure," manager Bob Geren said.

As for Braden, who won his first big league start of the season last week at Tampa Bay, he didn't pitch poorly by any stretch. He got fairly deep into the game (6 2/3 innings), had good command (two walks) and good stuff (seven strikeouts).

But among the six hits he surrendered were two-run homers by Jose Guillen (first inning) and Alex Gordon (sixth), and Braden was particularly peeved with Guillen's opposite-field shot.

"It was 2-0 before we even got the bats in our hands," Braden said. "Nobody likes to play from behind."

When Gordon's home run cleared the wall, the game felt all but over. Four runs gives you a pretty good shot at beating the July 2008 Oakland A's, who are crossing the plate an average of 3.5 times a game this month.

"We've seen some pretty good pitching," Geren said, and Royals starter Zack Greinke (7 1/3 innings, seven hits, two runs, one walk, 11 strikeouts), definitely deserves some credit.

But Ellis, who indeed gave Greinke his due, sounded like he's tiring of seeing every opposing starter turn into Cy Young when he toes the rubber against the A's.

"This is the American League; there's a lot of good pitchers," he said. "You're going to see a good pitcher most nights. Sometimes you'll run into ... a guy who's really on top of his game and you have to tip your cap, but you can't tip your cap every night."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.