The Oakland A's Keep Coming Back

The Athletics are making a division that wasn't even supposed to be close, feel tight (and scaring Mariners fans in the process).

by Rachael McDaniel
Jul 26 2018, 4:22pm

Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

On June 15, the Oakland A’s took the field against their division rival Los Angeles Angels in front of a crowd of around 18,000 at their cavernous home field. There were noticeable smatterings of red congregated on the dark-green seats. Many watching the game were Angels fans who’d made the trip north to watch their third-place team, and Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani.

As the sun set on the Bay and the Oakland faithful tapped at their cowbells and waved their flags, the sounds bouncing off the bare seats and concrete, the A’s dropped another game to the Angels by a score of 8-4. It was their fourth loss in a row. They were, for the eighth time this season, two games under .500. Mike Trout recorded three hits and a sacrifice fly, and though the A’s made a valiant attempt at a comeback, scoring a run in the eighth and another in the ninth, they were unable to surmount the late eight-run deficit.

At that point, the Angels—despite a precipitous falloff from their franchise-best start to the season, and despite a continuous series of injuries that they could increasingly ill afford to sustain—remained six games over .500, seven and a half games behind the division-leading Astros, and seven behind the Mariners, who had seized the second Wild Card spot out of nowhere. While it wasn’t an insurmountable gap, it was not the position the Angels wanted to be in as the season neared its halfway point.

The A’s, meanwhile, were even less advantageously positioned. Only the Rangers were worse in the West; an 11-game gap stood between the A’s and the Mariners. There had already been a few bright moments this season, most notably Sean Manaea’s no-hitter against baseball’s best team, that perhaps signified great things to come. But the 2018 Oakland A’s by and large seemed to be matching the concerns that had characterized discussion of them prior to the season. They were caught in the uncomfortable gap between rebuilding and trying to contend, not ready to tear it all down but lacking the financial wherewithal to acquire and maintain premium major league talent.

The mediocrity was thrown into sharper relief by what’s been going on elsewhere in the division. The Astros pulled off their rebuild with panache, got their World Series rings, and are now stacked with enough talent to make them postseason shoo-ins for years to come. The Mariners somehow struck gold in the form of clubhouse chemistry, soft-tossing starters, and Edwin Diaz. And while the Angels may have underperformed, they have both the undisputed best player in the world and arguably the most interesting one.

But the A’s and their fans have had, in general, little to root or hope for since the 2014 Josh Donaldson trade turned an MVP-caliber player into Kendall Graveman, Franklin Barreto, a soft-tossing pitcher who’s now in Double A with the Rockies, and a guy who hosts ketchup slip-and-slides. The three seasons that followed saw three last-place finishes, and even with the emergence of an intriguing group of young starters—Manaea, Graveman, Daniel Mengden and Andrew Triggs, to name a few—and the home run-hitting Matts Chapman and Olson, this season didn’t look promising. The PECOTA projection system had them at 76 wins; FanGraphs had them at 78. And through the first two months of the season, the team’s hitting and starting pitching was indeed middle-of-the-road. Their bullpen, too, was not good in April—while they posted one of the lowest walk rates in baseball at just 6.6 percent, their strikeout rate was similarly low, and they had a proclivity for giving up home runs.

Still, April also saw the emergence of rookie reliever Lou Trivino, who struck out almost 40 percent of the batters he faced, threw a 98 mph fastball and a near-unhittable cutter, and lives on a doughnut diet. Blake Treinen, acquired last season in the trade that sent veteran relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Nationals, became the dominant closer the Nationals had waited for. In May, the bullpen’s results improved, and while the offense remained dormant that month, they powered up in June, trailing only the Dodgers and Yankees in home runs. And over the last month, apart from a starting pitching situation that remains unstable—the A’s have used 12 starters and 28 pitchers overall this season—they’ve managed to get enough working for them to make a season of it after all.

On Tuesday night, the A’s faced the Rangers on the road. The day before, they’d laid a 15-3 beating on Cole Hamels, but Tuesday’s rematch wasn’t going so well. The Rangers were all over young starter Frankie Montas, and though the A’s had taken the game’s first lead on a home run from Chad Pinder—one of the many names on their roster that have inspired a chorus of “Who the fuck is that?” comments—they found themselves on the wrong end of another lopsided score. It was 10-2 Rangers heading into the top of the seventh. “Well, some work for the A’s to do,” the A’s broadcaster said as the inning began, but even he probably wasn’t expecting what happened to happen: a stunning 11-run comeback, capped off by Khris Davis’s third homer in three days.

In the 32 games since their June 15 loss to the Angels, the A’s ridiculous comeback was their 27th win, and their 16th comeback win. From 11 games behind the Mariners and being all but written out of the playoff picture, the two teams are now separated by only a game and half. Where the AL West was expected to be relatively uncompetitive, with the Astros taking the title and everyone else fighting for scraps, there is now a legitimately compelling playoff race, where every win might be the one that makes the difference. The seats at the Oakland Coliseum are no longer sparsely populated—at their last home game, a 6-5 win against the neighboring Giants, 44,374 packed the stands.

If you balance the ledger of franchise suffering, of course, you might argue that the A’s don’t quite fit the role of the plucky underdogs of the AL West that many have embraced for them over the past couple of weeks. Mariners fans, as they’ve watched the A’s shoot up the Wild Card standings like an inexplicable branch of ivy through a concrete wall, will be having nauseating flashbacks to 2014, when the A’s hung on to the second Wild Card spot by a single game—or, even worse, to 2002, the first year of the Mariners’ ongoing playoff drought, when a 20-game winning streak vaulted the A’s over the Mariners to the division title. What looked like a near-certain end to years of postseason futility has now become a terrifying, chest-heaving sprint to the finish.

But in an era of super-teams and basement-dwellers and ongoing concerns about competitive balance, it’s refreshing to know that baseball can still be surprising in this way—that teams can come from completely out of frame to make postseason runs based on comebacks and one-run games, clutch home runs and shutdown relievers and outplayed run differentials. The A’s pulled off another comeback win last night, on another homer from Khris Davis with two out in the ninth; the Mariners won, too, clinging to a 3-2 lead over the Giants thanks to Edwin Diaz. For fans of these teams, the next two months are going to be vomit-inducing. For fans of baseball, they’re going to be a hell of a lot of fun.

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