At one point this season, the Oakland A's found themselves sitting 13-games back of the Texas Rangers in the American League West standings. No Longer.
After game No. 161 last night, the A's now find themselves at 93-68, tied with the Rangers for first place in the AL West, having already secured at least a Wild Card berth into the playoffs. No one in the A's clubhouse is settling for the Wild Card at this point though—and why should they?
The A's have been the hottest team in baseball since June 2, going 71-47 since that point in the season. They have a combination of steady pitching in both the rotation and bullpen and the power bats to back up those stellar arms.
Heading into the final three-game series with the Rangers, Oakland needed to win once to clinch their first playoff berth since 2006. Goal accomplished in game-one Monday night. A sweep earns them the division crown, making Tuesday night's game a must-win as well as Wednesday. So far, goal accomplished again with the 3-1 defeat of Matt Hairston and the Rangers following Monday's 4-3 win.
During his post-game interview following his 24th save of the season, A's closer Grant Balfour said "I honestly believe that we're going to win tomorrow...Nothing's a guarantee, but it's about as good as one. I believe we're going to go out and get it done."
"Get it done" the A's certainly did Tuesday night, following a clutch pitching performance by lefty Travis Blackley, who had struggled horribly in his past two starts.
Blackley was up for the challenge this time, pitching six innings and allowing just a single run on three hits while striking out five. He worked his way out of a couple jams to preserve the game and Oakland's chances at a second champagne celebration in three days.
Oakland's lineup contributed their part as well beginning with a rally in the bottom of the fifth inning. Josh Donaldson led off the inning with a single and moved up to third on Brandon Moss' double the next at-bat.
Derek Norris followed suit with a sharp single to right field to score Donaldson and even the score. Moss also came around to score on a fielding error by right fielder Nelson Cruz for what would wind up being the game winning run.
Jonny Gomes added some insurance an inning later with his 18th homer of the season on a deep fly to left field.
It was then up to the A's bullpen to preserve the lead and get the ball into the hands of their closer for the ninth. Sean Doolittle collected his 17th hold of the season with a scoreless seventh inning, followed by Ryan Cook for a scoreless eighth inning and his 20th hold of the season.
The crowd of 30,660, all of whom were loud and seemingly into every pitch of the game, then rose to their feet and cheered as Balfour took the ball for the ninth inning.
Facing the heart of Texas' order, Balfour got Josh Hamilton to ground out to second baseman Cliff Pennington on a solid defensive play by the A's infielder. Balfour then blew fastballs past Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz to nail down the win.
Oakland will approach Wednesday's deciding game the same way they have approached every other game this season, one day at a time.
"Our personnel and front office has looked at this thing at every possible angle as you can possibly look at," manager Bob Melvin said. "I will insulate on today, and they'll look to the future, and that's probably a good dynamic for us to work that way."
In game 162, the Rangers will turn to Ryan Dempster as the A's hand the ball to yet another rookie starter, A.J. Griffin. Griffin is 3-0 with a 2.51 ERA at home this season and 7-1 with a 2.71 ERA in his rookie season for Oakland.
To wrap a regular season where many doubted the A's all the way down to the end, there is arguably no better pitcher for the A's to turn to in the season finale. The rookie pitcher has shown the confidence of a staff ace since his promotion to the Majors earlier this summer.
The A's team has shown the confidence of a team capable of winning a championship all season, and they'll have a chance to put themselves in a better position to do so when they take on Texas Wednesday afternoon at 12:35 to another packed and rowdy crowd at the Coliseum.
"Whoever thought that we would be here? I know we did," Balfour added.
All quotes were obtained first-hand via club credential access unless otherwise noted.