The A's will need Cespedes to play big
Do not be fooled by the logjam in the American League Wild Card standings.
Although there are five teams within 2.5 games of each other for that Wild Card play in game, in reality this is about three teams: the Detroit Tigers, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Tampa Bay Rays.
That is all you see on the sports networks; that is all you hear on the radio.
Except there are still 38 games to play for the surprising Oakland A's, who have managed to win in ways that would surprise even the most faithful fan, still just 0.5 games out of those standings. Like the other surprise team in this picture (Baltimore), the A's face a daunting September schedule that looms as a potential derailment on the playoff train.
That said, the A's fortunes will largely hinge on how much of a cushion they can give themselves as they embark on the next 16 games of their season.
Starting tonight against the Kansas City Royals, the A's play four teams with a combined record of 30 games under .500 in 2012. Even though 10 of the 16 are away from the Coliseum, the A's will have to win in double figures to position themselves for the playoffs.
Let's start with the Royals.
At 49-65, it has been another long year for Kansas City. Some of their young talent in the field has not lived up to the hype (namely Eric Hosmer). But despite their record, they have played the A's tough, splitting six games so far this year. With Jarrod Parker's elongated rest between starts, Brandon McCarthy and Dan Straily pitching, the A's have to get at least two in this series.
From Kansas City, Oakland comes home to face the slumping Cleveland Indians.
A surprise team earlier in the year, the Indians have faded quickly. Posting a record of 10-21 since the All-Star break, Cleveland has been relegated to playing out the string in 2012. The A's play the Indians seven times between Aug. 17 and Aug. 30. The aim should be to win five games against a team that has sunk down the stretch.
Who will be most vital to Oakland down the stretch?
The A's host the Minnesota Twins from Aug. 20 to Aug. 22 in Oakland.
In many ways, the Twins were the team that jump started Oakland into postseason contention, as the A's swept them at Target Field to begin the second half of 2012. That series was in stark contrast to the three-game sweep Minnesota gave the A's during their nine game losing streak in late May.
The one constant between the two teams has been that Josh Willingham has bashed the A's. So far, Willingham has hit five home runs in six games against his former team. Keeping him (somewhat) in check and getting to Minnesota's weak starting rotation will be key. Two out of three games here should be a minimum, with a sweep being the ultimate aim.
Finally, the A's will travel to St. Petersburg from Aug. 23 to Aug. 25 in a big three-game series against current Wild Card leader Tampa Bay.
The Rays took two of three from the A's in Oakland as its starting pitching allowed a measly five runs in three games. The series is even at three games apiece, but Oakland will need to play well at Tropicana Field as that set sandwiches series between Cleveland and Minnesota.
Ultimately, I feel the A's will have to win 89 games to qualify for the postseason. I project that based on the number of teams still playing, the schedules of the other contenders and, ultimately, the schedule that awaits Oakland.
With that said, to have a reasonable chance to get to that figure, the A's will have to win 11 of the next 16 games, thus putting their record at 72-58 going towards September.
While the team does have the benefit of playing every other contender, Oakland's schedule is fourth toughest (.507 opponents win percentage), and they play 27 of the final 48 games on the road.