On June 30, the Oakland A's trailed the Texas Rangers by 13 games in the AL West. They trailed the Rangers by five games as recently as last Monday.
On Wednesday, the A's finally underdogged their way past the Rangers in a 12-5 victory in front of a packed house at O.co Coliseum that went absolutely bananas when the final out was squeezed. One guy was so stoked that he found himself celebrating on the ground amidst the peanut shells and hot dog wrappers.
And rightfully so. The 2012 A's are the first team in baseball history to overcome a five-game deficit in their division with only nine games to play, and Jane Lee of MLB.com was kind enough to point out that they are just the third team in MLB history whose first day alone in first place also happened to be the last day of the season.
And all they needed to do in order to pull it off was sweep the two-time defending American League champions. No big deal (translation: huge deal).
So it goes for this A's team. In a season full of wacky storylines, theirs is by far the wackiest. They're a team with a $50 million payroll that consists mainly of a small herd of rookies and another small herd of other organizations' castoffs. They are very much a Moneyball team, except with far more of a "We run this [bleep]!" attitude.
I don't care who your favorite team is; you have to love these A's. They're too good, and they're certainly too much fun. Many fans would love to see them in the World Series, and I'm guessing a lot of other fans at least wouldn't mind seeing the A's in the World Series.
But how realistic is a World Series run for this A's team?
Are these A's just another tease like all the other Moneyball teams, or are they for real?
There's a case to be made for both "yes" and "no" answers. Here they are.
Why a World Series Run Is in the Cards
The A's are a lot more widely accepted as a legitimately good team than they were, say, a month or six weeks ago, but you get the sense that some people out there still think the A's are a mere novelty team that is lucky just to be in the postseason.
In other words, some people still think they're overachievers.
If this is your perception of the A's, you need to get over it and give these guys the respect they deserve. They're not just legitimate. They're elite.
The A's ended up going 51-25 after the All-Star break, and they were able to do that because they dominated pretty much every aspect of the game. They pitched, they hit and they fielded.
Though A's pitchers were slightly better before the All-Star break than they were after it, they still managed to post a 3.59 team ERA that was topped only by the Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays among American League teams.
They were able to do this despite starting nine different pitchers in the season's second half. Of the eight pitchers who made at least six starts, six of them posted ERAs under 4.00. Only one of them, veteran right-hander Brandon McCarthy, lost more games than he won in the second half.
One thing the A's did do significantly better in the second half than they did in the first half was swing the bats. They posted a .667 OPS and scored an average of 3.71 runs per game in the first half and then went on to post a .765 OPS and average of 5.18 runs per game in the second half. In the end, the A's led all AL teams with 394 runs scored in the second half.
Oakland's primary weapon in the second half was the long ball. The A's hit 112 home runs, more than any other American League team. Five players—Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, Chris Carter, Brandon Moss and Jonny Gomes—hit at least 10 home runs in the second half.
Defensively, the A's finished the season with a DRS (defensive runs saved) of +14, according to FanGraphs. That's above average, but it's a number that doesn't quite do the A's proper justice for the defense they've played lately. With Coco Crisp in center field, Reddick in right field, Josh Donaldson at third base and Cliff Pennington in the middle of the infield at either short or second, the A's are a very strong defensive team.
So when you go looking for complaints to make about the A's, it's really hard to take issue with what they do on the field. They do everything that good teams are supposed to do.
As such, people have to resort to complaining about Oakland's collective inexperience, particularly where its pitching staff is concerned. While the A's pitching staff may have solid numbers, it looked a lot more formidable when Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy were both active, and they've missed Brett Anderson in recent weeks as well.
Maybe so, but to single out Oakland's young pitchers as being inexperienced is to downplay the high-pressure games they've been pitching in for several weeks at this point.
Considering the circumstances, they've done well for themselves. Underrated righty Jarrod Parker went 4-1 with a 2.63 ERA in his last six starts. Steady lefty Tommy Milone went 2-1 with a 2.60 ERA in his last five starts. Even including some recent tough outings, A.J. Griffin managed to go 4-1 with a 3.82 ERA in his last seven starts.
These guys can pitch in October. Whether or not they can may end up being a moot point anyway, as the A's could very well end up relying on some of their veteran pitchers after all. Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle has reported that McCarthy could make a comeback in the playoffs. AP baseball writer Janie McCauley has reported that Anderson could be back soon as well.
If the A's go deep enough in the postseason, they'll be able to activate Colon. His 50-game suspension for testosterone use will be over once the A's are 10 games into their postseason run.
Besides, with the A's, the quality of the personnel on the field is only so important. Just as important when it comes to this team is how all the pieces fit together. Manager Bob Melvin has done an excellent job of making do with what he has had all season, managing the club's bullpen and its various platoons to perfection.
The players themselves would follow Melvin's lead anywhere, and they all have each other's backs. The A's have more chemistry than any team in the majors, and it's not exactly unheard of for team chemistry to play a major role in October.
So the question isn't so much whether the A's can go to the World Series. It's why can't they go to the World Series?
Glad you asked...
Why a World Series Run Isn't in the Cards
The A's are good enough to go the World Series. The dilemma is that they're by no means the only team in the American League playoff field that is good enough to go to the Fall Classic.
We can start by discussing the A's first opponent, the Detroit Tigers. They're in the postseason because they just capped off their season with a run that saw them go 8-2 in their last 10 games. They beat up on some weak competition and won a weak division, but that doesn't mean they're not playing good baseball.
What's scary about the Tigers is that they definitely have the goods to do damage in a short postseason series, particularly when it comes to their starting rotation. With all due respect to Oakland's underrated starting pitching staff, the guys they have don't hold a candle to the guys the Tigers have.
The Tigers are going to be trotting Justin Verlander out to the mound for Game 1 on Saturday. All he's done this season is go 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and an MLB-high 239 strikeouts. He's very much the same pitcher he was in 2011, when he won both the AL MVP and the Cy Young.
After him will (likely) come Doug Fister, who went 8-4 with a 2.67 ERA in the second half of the season. Max Scherzer will (likely) get the call for Game 3, and he probably would have ended up leading the league in strikeouts had he not experienced some shoulder trouble at the end of the season.
All three of these guys can dominate on a good day, especially if they're striking people out. That doesn't bode well for an A's team that just set an American League record for strikeouts in a single season.
And should I mention that the Tigers also have a Triple Crown winner in Miguel Cabrera and a hitter in Prince Fielder who posted a .412 OBP and hit 30 home runs this season?
For that matter, should I mention that the first two games of the series are going to be in Detroit?
Make no mistake about it. When the A's play their first home game in these playoffs, they may be trying to fight their way out of an 0-2 hole. Given what the Tigers have to play with, that's a very real possibility.
Things won't get easier if the A's survive the Tigers. They could face a New York Yankees team that stomped all over Oakland's heart with two walk-off wins the last time the A's saw them in the Bronx. They could face an Orioles team that is essentially an East Coast version of the A's themselves. They could face a Rangers team that will want revenge.
And as much as I'm willing to downplay Oakland's inexperience as a potential postseason buzz kill, I can at least grant that it's somewhat concerning. There's not a lot of postseason experience to be found on Oakland's roster, and Bob Melvin has only managed in the postseason once before, in 2007. His Arizona Diamondbacks got off to a good start by sweeping the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS, but then they got swept by the Colorado Rockies in the NLCS.
Much will depend on the odd sort of glue that holds the A's together. They fought for each other during the regular season, and they're going to have to fight even harder for each other in the postseason. They better be up for it.
After what happened late Thursday night, they may not be.
I really, really hate that I have to bring this up, but everyone knows by now that tragedy rocked the A's hours after they were celebrating their victory over the Rangers on Thursday. Veteran reliever Pat Neshek tweeted that his newborn son passed away with no explanation whatsoever a mere 23 hours after he was born.
The news punched everyone directly in the gut. The A's themselves certainly were not spared, and I think Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com summed it up perfectly when he wrote of the tragic news:
[It] stopped the party cold. One of theirs was in unimaginable pain, a pain that the wives and girlfriends felt just as strongly as the men. The A’s as an extended family took the secondary blow, and now the effervescence of the day cannot be regained. It is, in the most horrible way, time for them to get back to work.
And get back to work the A's will. When they do, though, it will be impossible to do so with the same kind of mindset that they had before.
I assure you that I'm not making this point just for shock value. Nor do I want to make it sound like the horrible experience the Neshek family is going through right now is some sort of baseball issue. It's a human issue all the way to the core.
That's the thing. Baseball players are human beings too, and human beings can't shrug off news like this just because their job may demand it.
The plainest way I can put it is this: Real life has hit the A's where it hurts, and the daze that it wrought isn't going to go away so easily.
The question I posed above was not a rhetorical one. While there are very good reasons why the A's can go to the World Series, there are also very good reasons why the A's can't go to the World Series.
The Grand Conclusion
After all this, the question remains: Will the A's see their remarkable run straight through to the World Series?
I'd love to weasel my way out of this by saying that they certainly can, but the word "will" requires me to make a call one way or the other.
Right now, I'm compelled to say no.
Admittedly, the main reason I'm compelled to say no is because I just tabbed the Rangers to go back to the World Series a couple days ago. This was before they got embarrassed in Oakland on Wednesday, and I'll freely admit that I'm already regretting picking them. But heck, it's too soon for me to backtrack and say that it's the A's who are going to the World Series this year.
Your call: Will the A's see their improbable run all the way through to the World Series?
My (ill-advised) Rangers pick isn't the only reason I have doubts about the A's, though. The Tigers team they're about to face strikes me as being both weak on paper yet dreadfully scary at the same time. If Verlander, Fister and Scherzer get rolling, they may not lose a game in these playoffs. The Tigers could be that good.
Then there are the Yankees, Orioles and Rangers to consider. The Yankees finished the year playing very good baseball. The Orioles are a bigger underdog threat than the A's. Though they really fouled things up in the end, the Rangers must not be underestimated.
As such, I hesitate to say that the A's will go to the World Series because they're not clearly the team to beat in the American League bracket. Nobody is. The field is wide open.
I'll say this, though: The A's are the one team in the field I wouldn't bet against under any circumstances. Yes, even if one of the circumstances is a horrid tragedy that has enveloped the life of one of their pitchers.
I wouldn't bet against the A's because it's abundantly obvious at this point that betting against them is just about the stupidest thing one can possibly do.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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