Athletics For Life

The Reset Button

September 29th, 2014

Well, we’re in. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t pretty, but on the last day of the regular season, the A’s punched their ticket to the postseason and we get to hit the reset button. It’s a new season, and everyone’s record is zero and zero.

The last two months were as trying of a time as I have experienced as an A’s fan. Watching the team be the best team in baseball, make some huge trades, and then freefall and hit rock bottom over and over again was gut-wrenching. I actually stopped watching games for a stretch in mid-September. I couldn’t take the nightly three-hour frustration-fest and had to just look away for awhile and hope for the best.

geovany-soto-sonny-gray-mlb-oakland-athletics-texas-rangers1-590x900I was looking this past week though, at both the A’s games and the Mariners games. The A’s stumbled through a nine-game homestand going 3-6, but the Mariners also stumbled through a trip to to Toronto, dropping 3 out of 4, including a 1-0 heartbreaker on Wednesday that dropped the A’s magic number to clinch a wild card spot to two going into the four-game series with Texas.

Weeks ago, we had been looking at the schedule noting those last four games in Texas and seeing a fairly easy path to the postseason. But the Rangers were red hot – winners of 12 of their last 13 going into the series – and really motivated to knock the A’s out of the playoffs. And they stuck it to us in grand fashion on Thursday night. After another frustrating game full of missed opportunities with runners on base, the A’s went into the 9th locked in a 1-1 tie with the Rangers and Adrian Beltre ended it the way you’d expect him to, with a walkoff home run to sink the A’s 2-1. Magic number still two, with three to play.

Six games, two favorable outcomes needed. The Mariners losing to the Angels and the A’s beating the Rangers in the teams’ final three games of the regular season would seal the deal and put the A’s in the playoffs. The A’s took care of business on Friday night, backing Scott Kazmir’s bounceback effort with six runs to cruise to a 6-2 victory. The Mariners also beat the Angels so the magic number was stuck at one with just Saturday and Sunday left to sort it all out.

628x471Friday’s results created a sticky situation, however. The Orioles lost that night, which ensured that the Angels would end the season with the best record in baseball and have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. They would have absolutely nothing to play for the rest of the weekend. There was no reason for them to care about trying to beat the Mariners, and perhaps they even wanted the A’s and Mariners to have to settle things in a 163rd game on Monday. Yeah, Game 163. That was going to happen if the Mariners won both of their remaining games and the A’s lost both of theirs.

And the A’s did just that on Saturday, losing 5-4 in another super frustrating game of missed opportunities and behind a homer-prone Jeff Samardzija. Meanwhile in Seattle, the Mariners and Angels were locked in a 1-1 battle that went into extra innings. It was a bizarre game – Mike Scioscia had pulled Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, and David Freese from the game in the 6th inning. This was a game that was 1-0 at the time. Yeah, they didn’t care about winning. It was a strange mix of emotions on the field. There were lackadaisical Angels players alongside intense faces of the Mariners, fighting to keep their season alive. And the Mariners had to scratch and claw to eek out one run to take the game 2-1 in 11 innings.

And so it would go to Game 162. The Mariners had Felix Hernandez pitching so the A’s had to win to avoid getting on a plane to Seattle. They needed someone to come up big, either on the mound or with a big hit in a big situation. And they got their man in Sonny Gray, as he gave the A’s a clutch performance like Tim Hudson did 14 years earlier, against these same Rangers with a trip to the playoffs guaranteed with a win. He threw a shutout in just 103 pitches, allowing just six hits and getting timely strikeouts and double plays to the point where there was little doubt most of the afternoon that Sonny had this in the bag.

And so it didn’t matter that Felix and the Mariners won on Sunday; they finished with 87 wins while the A’s had 88 and it was time for the green and gold to celebrate for the third year in a row. It’s a huge relief.  They almost went from a playoff lock to the worst collapse in baseball history. That’s not an exaggeration – if they missed the playoffs, it would’ve been the worst collapse in baseball history. All the baseball of all time. But that didn’t happen. RESET and let’s go, Oakland.

Pressure

September 3rd, 2014

Expectations are a funny thing. There were absolutely none on the 2012 A’s, who came from five games back in the division with ten games left to play to overtake the Rangers on the final day of the season. There were a little, but still not much, on the 2013 A’s, who proved that 2012 was no fluke. But the 2014 A’s went into the season as back-to-back division champions, and when they started playing excellent ball, blowing everyone away in run differential and dominating the league, expectations rose.

Bob Melvin, Geovany Soto, Greg GibsoAnd those expectations boiled over on July 31 when Billy Beane traded Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. Now this wasn’t just a good team, it was a good team who was expected to go to the World Series. Expectations lead to pressure, and not only did it put pressure on the A’s, it put a big bullseye on the team, and extra motivation for their opponents to knock them down.

This is where I’m at in trying to understand what happened to the A’s in August. Sure, they missed Cespedes, but it was a lot more than that. Brandon Moss stopped hitting, almost completely. So did Derek Norris. Jed Lowrie was playing hurt and then went on the DL. Even the vaunted starting pitching staff had some rough patches. It just all fell apart at once.

We can look at stats all day long to try to figure out who can replace who in a lineup, but one thing we couldn’t have ever prepare for is the psychological impact a move like the Cespedes trade has on a team. Maybe it doesn’t have any. Only the A’s players themselves know if they were pressing and trying to do too much because Cespedes is no longer on the team. But we do know the team had its first losing month since May of 2012, guys who were All Stars in the first half looked completely lost at the plate in August, and they lost their division lead and now sit 4 1/2 games back in the AL West behind the Angels. One guy not being in a lineup can’t do that but pressure sure can.

The good news for the A’s is that they still have 24 more games to play this season and hold a three game lead for the first Wild Card spot. They also now have Adam Dunn in their lineup, who might help provide some of that lineup protection and presence that they may have been missing without Cespedes. But the pressure is still on. There’s no way it can’t be in a season like this.

And Then That Happened.

July 31st, 2014

When I first saw the news on Twitter that the A’s had acquired Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes from the Red Sox for Yoenis Cespedes, I thought it was a joke. Certainly the A’s wouldn’t trade away Cespedes in the middle of a pennant race, even for an ace like Lester. But then it was tweeted by other recognizable sources and it began to sink in. This really happened.

Billy Beane has made some shocking trades over the years but this one might take the cake. Major league talent for major league talent trades don’t happen all that often to begin with, at least on this large of a scale, but then you throw in the fact that a team in a pennant race traded away their All Star left fielder and this one’s on another level.

Yoenis CespedesJon Lester is an ace. He is that probably more than Jeff Samardzija is an ace, more than Scott Kazmir is an ace, and more than Sonny Gray is an ace. They’re all great pitchers but Lester has gotten it done in the postseason and on the big stage. He’s the guy you match up against Verlander (or David Price, this year) in a Game 1/Game 5 matchup with Detroit and actually have a chance to win.

But what do the A’s do about the loss of Cespedes? There’s no doubt that he’s an imposing hitter and a game-changing player with tons of talent. Jonny Gomes was acquired along with Lester in this deal but he’s not going to replace Cespedes’s production, at least versus right handed pitching. Versus left handed pitching, well he’s pretty good and will do just that:

Cespedes vs. LHP: .232/.319/.455 this season and .275/.348/.496 career
Gomes vs. LHP: .302/.400/.431 this season and .279/.379/.495 career

As for versus righty pitching, the A’s have enjoyed the emergence of Stephen Vogt this season as not just a clutch hitter but as a versatile player who can play the corner outfield spots and first base as well as catcher. He’s been kind of ridiculous:

Vogt vs. RHP: .365/.396/.524 this season and .286/.328/.421 career

We have to figure he’s somewhere between those two lines. He’s a good hitter, but not one of the top hitters in the game. And then there’s Cespedes:

Cespedes vs. RHP: .263/.298/.467 this season and .257/.306/.459 career

Also a good hitter, but not one of the top hitters in the game. Sure, he’s got big time power but the overall numbers do not appear irreplaceable. I think the offense will be fine, and isn’t necessarily that much worse without him.

He’s been an exciting player to have on the A’s and get to watch play every day but this season is about winning the World Series, and to do that you need top notch pitching that can shut the opposition down. In 2012, the ALDS games were started by Parker, Milone, Anderson, Griffin, Parker versus Verlander, Fister, Sanchez, Scherzer, Verlander. In 2013, it was Colon, Gray, Parker, Straily, Gray versus Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez, Fister, Verlander. This year, baseball gods willing, we’ll have Lester, Samardzija, Gray, Kazmir. That’s a quartet of number ones like nothing we’ve had in recent years. I’ll miss Cespedes but as always I trust Billy Beane knows what he’s doing.

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