It was almost too perfect. Or, if you’re an Oakland A’s fan, too imperfect. After starting the American League Wild Card Game on a promising note and building a comfortable lead, the A’s collapsed.
Then, they pulled themselves back from the brink. And then they collapsed again.
In other words: Oakland’s 2014 season in a nutshell.
These are the A's who looked like world-beaters in the first half and then went big at the trade deadline, acquiring aces Jon Lester and Jeff Samardzija. These are the A's who built a six-game division cushion on June 21...the A's who had their sights squarely set on the franchise's first World Series victory since 1989.
Instead, Oakland watched the Cinderella Kansas City Royals storm the field after a walk-off, 12-inning, 9-8 victory. As the roar of an ecstatic Kauffman Stadium crowd rang in their ears, they headed for the locker room—defeated, dejected and no doubt wondering what in the world happened.
For a while, it looked like it was going to be the Athletics' night, just as once upon a time it looked like it was going to be their year.
Guiding the Royals in their first playoff game since the Reagan administration, K.C. skipper Ned Yost made some head-scratching decisions. None bigger than in the sixth inning, when he pulled starter James Shields with two men on and a 3-2 lead and summoned rookie starter Yordano Ventura.
Ventura promptly coughed up a three-run home run to Oakland designated hitter Brandon Moss, Moss' second long ball of the game.
By the time the inning was over, the A's had built a 7-3 lead. With playoff-tested stud Lester on the hill, it felt like it would be enough—more than enough.
To their credit, the Royals hung around. They chased Lester in the eighth inning and ultimately tied the game, 7-7, against Oakland closer Sean Doolittle in the ninth.
The A's reclaimed the lead with a run in the top of the 12th, but the Royals plated two in the bottom of the frame, with the winning hit coming against Jason Hammel, another of Oakland's trade-deadline arms.
And that was it—a season that once seemed destined to conclude with a deep run, and quite possibly a Commissioner's Trophy headed to the East Bay, ended in heartbreak.
It was fitting, just not in the way the Green and Gold hoped.
Oakland has made a habit of building up its fans' expectations, only to dash them on the rocks of October. Since 2000, the A's have been bounced six times from the American League Division Series and once from the American League Championship Series. During that span, they're 0-7 in elimination games, counting Tuesday night's bitter loss in Missouri.
Still, the mantra was always: In Billy Beane we trust—and for good reason. Despite a payroll that perennially ranks among the league's stingiest, the "moneyball" general manager has found a way to keep his club competitive.
This felt like the season it was all going to coalesce. Beane himself said as much, telling MLB.com's Richard Justice in July that the key is identifying when you have a squad capable of running the table. And then?
"When you do, you go for it," Beane said.
He went for it, trading Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes and a handful of blue-chip prospects to bolster the pitching staff. The A's, unequivocally, were all in.
Now, just like that, they're out. There will be plenty of time—a whole agonizing offseason—to dissect what went wrong, and to point fingers.
Carl Steward of the Bay Area News Group got a head start, penning Oakland's eulogy before the paint was dry on the regular season:
Autopsies will abound once it's over.
But from this view, the demise of the A's has everything to do with the evaporation of esprit de corps that made the team special and dangerous...There was something substantive to Oakland being greater than the sum of its parts, that everybody got along so well, and the Bob Melvin mantra of "play for today" was a genuine rallying cry to their success.
For now, Oakland can only marvel at the pure imperfection of a perfect season gone wrong...and wait, yet again, until next year.