Is this the year the A's win it all in October?
The regular season is over. For the teams that have survived, the real season begins, as the calendar turns to October.
The 2013 campaign was very different for the Oakland A's in terms of expectations than was their magical 2012 season.
But in the end, the results were the same: An American League West division title and a date with the powerful Detroit Tigers in the American League Division Series. Like 2012, the A's will again have home-field advantage against the Tigers.
And yes, like 2013, the A's are likely to be underdogs.
Oakland doesn't have a megastar like Miguel Cabrera, a pair of aces like Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander—not to mention Anibal Sanchez—and has the specter of being good enough to get to this point, but not to win the series.
Since 2000, the A's have advanced to the playoffs six times. Only once, in 2006, did they advance to the American League Championship Series. That season, they were swept in a one-sided series by the Tigers.
Needless to say, there are some mixed emotions for long-time A's fans. Getting to this part of the baseball season is always nice, but there is a sense that it is time for Oakland to make a run. Make no mistake, what this Oakland team does not have in star power, it makes up for in sheer depth. No team is deeper than the A's in the MLB playoffs.
So what will happen, or should I say, what needs to happen for A's success in October? Here are five things I'm thinking about.
Colon will get the ball first, but is not a traditional ace
On paper, the A's rotation does not appear to hold up against the big, bad Tigers, but that is the mistake that most pundits make.
The reality is that Oakland's starting mound quartet of Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker, Sonny Gray and A.J. Griffin has consistently given the A's a chance to win the majority of their starts.
In other words, when you lack a top-heavy rotation (think the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks), winning in the postseason is about getting quality starts and maximizing the opportunities provided.
Players like Lowrie give the A's a more complete offense
If there is one thing that changes with the postseason, it is that the opposing starters tend to all be hard throwers.
It's no secret that the A's have not always fared well against power pitching, but the splits from 2013 have been telling:
Offense vs. power pitchers (starters/relievers): .214/.315/.363 in 1,125 plate appearances
Offense vs. finesse pitchers (starters/relievers): .269/.333/.440 in 2,786 plate appearances
In other words, waiting on the home run is a bit foolhardy for this team against top-end pitching. If the long ball comes, great, but if there is one true weakness the A's have, has been their situational hitting.
Time after time, the A's have had games where the offense puts runners on base with less than two outs and fail to produce any runs. That is a recipe for another short postseason against Detroit.
However, the regular season is not the postseason and the explosive nature of the A's offense in what should have been a four-game sweep in Detroit at the end of August will likely be a bit more muted.
That puts the onus on players like Alberto Callaspo, Eric Sogard, Josh Reddick and Derek Norris/Stephen Vogt to be productive with runners on base. Striking out or popping up with runners on first and second or runners at second and third is not going to win this series or any others this postseason.
No player has tormented the A's more than Torii Hunter
In a series for the A's against the Detroit Tigers, it is really easy to say that winning will come down to slowing down Miguel Cabrera and being productive against Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander.
No one needs a journalism degree to see that.
However, it is key to note that the A's lost last year despite Cabrera hitting all of .250 with one solitary RBI in the five-game division series. Prince Fielder hit .190 and his lone home run was forgotten in Oakland's stirring ninth-inning rally in Game 4.
So what happened exactly? Well, Omar Infante hit .353 and was a general nuisance in all five games, Quintin Berry hit .300 in his starts and Andy Dirks hit .294 in 17 at-bats while Oakland's pitching did a very good job of stopping the usual suspects.
Unfortunately, the unusual suspects did much of the work to do them in. This time, you can focus on two players who Oakland has to contain—Torii Hunter and Jhonny Peralta. Hunter has been an A's killer since his days in Minnesota and 2013 was no different.
Hunter smacked three home runs, drove in six runs, and hit .462 with a slugging percentage of 1.000 in 27 plate appearances. For the A's, Hunter is a bigger threat than anyone not named Cabrera in Detroit's lineup. They must contain him to beat the Tigers.
With Peralta, it is the wild-card effect. Like Bartolo Colon in 2012, Peralta served a 50 game suspension for use of performance enhancing drugs. Unlike Colon, Peralta returned in time to play in the postseason. He adds another dimension to Detroit's already powerful lineup. The trio of Cabrera, Fielder, and Victor Martinez is tough enough, but you can't allow anyone else to break out.
Will Reddick's disappearing act continue in October?
What it gets down to is that Oakland will have to score runs.
The A's managed just 11 runs in last year's five-game division series while hitting just .194 as a team. It speaks to how good the A's starting pitching was that the A's were competitive in the first four games of the series, winning two of them.
But in spite of having arguably a better rotation this year with Bartolo Colon and Sonny Gray, averaging 2.2 runs a game is going to lead to another early exit. That means expected production has to be met from leaders like Coco Crisp, who batted .182 in last year's series.
However, the real strength of Oakland's offense is that there is more overall strength at weak offensive positions from 2012. Most notable has been the fantastic job that Jed Lowrie has done at shortstop offensively.
In the end, someone has to step up that is not on the radar. Last year, Oakland got unexpected production from Cliff Pennington (.286 average in the ALDS). This year, I see three players who have to provide something: Derek Norris, Seth Smith and Stephen Vogt. Smith, especially, as he will get opportunities with Detroit's right-handed heavy starting rotation.
Balfour along with Doolittle and Cook have to dominate
In the end, what matters most for the A's is what they do in the end.
That means, the strength of the team playing up to that distinction which means the No. 1 key for Oakland's playoff success will be a lights-out bullpen.
The bulk of the work, as usual, will be done by four major relievers: Grant Balfour, Jerry Blevins, Ryan Cook, and Sean Doolittle. With all apologies to Dan Otero and Jesse Chavez, we will only see them in worst-case scenarios.
Oakland's four best relievers have to atone for what was a shaky performance by them in the 2012 playoffs. Cook particularly struggled, posting an 8.10 ERA in four appearances.
It is forgotten by many, but Balfour lost Game 2 by allowing the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth inning. True, the A's were in a tie game in part because of a dropped fly ball by Coco Crisp. However, Oakland had recovered and put itself back in position to win the game. The bullpen gave up the lead.
For a team that lacks truly dominant starting pitching, the bullpen being rock solid is a must.
Winning will mean being in a position to win a game and the bullpen either holding a lead or keeping the game in a position to allow the offense to win it—period.
Melvin will have to pull the strings, unlike Howe and Macha
You can never completely handicap anything that involves the performance of humans. I know that sounds philosophical and a bit much for a sports article, but in the end, the games will be won on the field.
In other words, predictions mean nothing once the competition begins.
That said, these keys are based on a lot of time spent watching a team that has impressed and entertained me for the better part of two years. Players will have to step up and great players will have to play great.
Quite often, though, intangibles matter more than anything else. For the A's, it could be manager Bob Melvin. As the anti-Bob Geren (I won't sully this writing by mentioning that name again), Melvin has been much more of a presence than any A's skipper since Tony LaRussa. His intuition and decision-making will have a hand in at least one game.
More than anything, I feel as though the A's were happy to have shocked the pundits last year and just make the playoffs. This year, you get the sense in observing that this is a team that feels like it is ready to win. That, of course, is not all it takes, but there's nothing quite like knowing you can win against hoping you can win.
One more big key is that the A's figure to be healthy come Friday and Game 1.
All hands on deck matter when you win by having a better 25-man roster than your opponent. This team has bucked expectations again in 2013. All that is left for the Billy Beane/Moneyball era is to add a world championship to the list of achievements in Oakland.