The Oakland Athletics won the American League West during the 60-game, COVID-19 pandemic-shortened regular season, but that division crown will mean much less if they are unable to defeat the Houston Astros in the second round of the playoffs.
"I think there's a little bit of us wanting to prove we're better than them," Oakland relief pitcher Liam Hendriks said, per Martin Gallegos of MLB.com. "But we also don't want to get petty and let emotions get the best of us. ... We're going to prove we're the best team in the AL West."
Hendriks is one reason Oakland finished seven games ahead of Houston during the regular season considering the right-hander posted a 1.78 ERA, 0.67 WHIP, 14 saves and 37 strikeouts in 25.1 innings.
The Athletics earned the matchup with a Wild Card Round win over the Chicago White Sox, while the Astros swept the Minnesota Twins.
If it goes anything like the regular season, Oakland will play its way into the American League Championship Series. The division champions were 7-3 against the Astros, helping create the separation that eventually led to the No. 2 seed in the expanded playoffs.
There is also the underlying storyline of the Astros trying to compete without stealing signs and put their scandal behind them every time they lace it up in the postseason. Houston lost its first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021 and was fined $5 million as a result of Major League Baseball's investigation into the sign-stealing practices that helped it win the 2017 World Series.
Carlos Correa even called out the team's critics when speaking to reporters following the win over the Twins.
There will surely be plenty of baseball fans happy to see the Astros lose as a result of that scandal, and Hendriks sounded like someone happy to make that a reality when preparing for the upcoming series.