The word “destiny” is thrown around way too often in sports. But when trying to comprehend the story of the 2018 A’s, you can’t help using the word.
How else to explain it?
The A’s punched their ticket to the playoffs Monday just as their game in Seattle was getting underway. Moments earlier, the Tampa Bay Rays — the only remaining threat to Oakland’s first postseason since 2014 — were eliminated from contention by 4-1 loss to the New York Yankees.
The playoff berth ends a drought of three brutal years which saw the A’s finish last in the AL West for three consecutive seasons.
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It was a frustrating period for everyone involved. But A’s GM David Forst and the rest of the front office had a plan mapped out, they just needed ownership to believe in the process.
“When you go through three tough years like that, people kind of count you out,” Forst said. “I’m glad that people throughout the organization stuck with it and ownership trusted what we were doing and that Bob (Melvin) gets the credit he does for turning this group into a postseason team.”
It’s a credit Melvin certainly deserves for ingraining confidence into a club that at the start of the year was filled with inexperienced youngsters.
But if you ask Melvin, he’ll tell you it’s the players that have made his job easy.
“This group is the best group I’ve had in all my years of managing in terms of just playing for the guy next to them,” Melvin said. “That was the theme. It’s what these guys do better than anybody. These guys have high aspirations and hope this isn’t the only celebration we have.”
A’s shortstop Marcus Semien knows what those rough years were like, he was there the for the entire drought.
In fact, going back to his 2013 rookie year with the White Sox, Semien’s teams had never finished better than fourth place.
“This is special,” Semien said. “I’ve been in last place my whole career. This was our goal in the spring, and now we gotta do some more with it.”
But what exactly makes this particular A’s club so special?
“Our whole team is just a bunch of dogs,” Semien said. “Our infield plays every day. The platoon system in left field has been working. And they called up some big time players to help us out. Our starting pitchers, everybody got hurt in spring, but they found a way to get the right guys out there and make it work.”
In all likelihood, the A’s will face the Yankees in a one-game wild-card playoff Oct. 3. Where the game will be played — New York or Oakland — is still to be determined. Entering Tuesday, the Yankees held a 1 1/2 game lead in the race for home-field advantage after the A’s defeated the Mariners, a team they trailed by 11 games in the wild-card race on June 15, 7-3 Monday. But New York finishes the season with three games in Boston against the best team in the majors.
The A’s still could win the AL West, but it would take a miracle; they entered play Monday five games behind Houston with six to play.
It makes no sense that a team expected to finish around .500 if everything went its way is headed to the playoffs despite having had everything go against them.
“Nobody expected them to do anything coming out of spring training,” Forst said. “They believed in themselves and fought through a lot of things individually and as a group. We lost guys along the way, and everyone stepped up. It wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t.”
Had things gone the A’s way, Kendall Graveman would be living up to his status as the No. 1 starter, Sean Manaea would be going strong as the No. 2 and Jharel Cotton would make three. Top pitching prospect AJ Puk might be here.
Instead, Graveman, Cotton, and Puk all went down with Tommy John surgery early in the year, while a torn labrum ended Manaea’s season last month. In fact, nobody from the starting rotation that came out of spring training is part of this current incarnation.
The A’s have used 14 starting pitchers this season, yet here they are, set to play in October thanks to castoffs such as Brett Anderson, Edwin Jackson, and Trevor Cahill. Signed off the MLB scrap heap to serve as duct tape to a starting rotation in shambles, Anderson and Jackson will finish the season with ERAs under 4.00 for the first time since 2015, Cahill for the first time since 2013.
Jackson’s story is particularly remarkable.
Released from his minor league contract in June by the Washington Nationals, Jackson was unsure if he’d even pitch in the majors this season, let alone reach the playoffs.
“I didn’t envision this,” Jackson said. “But once I stepped in this clubhouse and saw the chemistry that was amongst the clubhouse, I knew this team had a chance to do something special. It’s nice to secure a spot and we’re definitely gonna enjoy tonight, but the mission is far from over. We’re not gonna stop until we accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”
That doesn’t happen. Teams don’t go through 14 starting pitchers. The Texas Rangers have used 15 and they’ll finish last in the AL West.
It makes no sense for a second baseman to have the greatest season of his career at age 34. But that’s what Jed Lowrie has done, earning his first All-Star selection, hitting 21 home runs after never hitting more than 16 in a season and approaching 100 RBIs after never having produced more than 75.
It didn’t make sense when the A’s went into Cleveland and Houston, two teams that will meet in the playoffs, and took five of seven games just before the All-Star Break. Yet that was a clear signal to Forst that something special might be going on. He responded by making four trades for four pitchers — Jeurys Familia, Mike Fiers, Shawn Kelley and Fernando Rodney — in a span of 18 days..
“We knew going into that stretch, that was gonna give us a real good sense of where we were,” Forst said. “The guys played great and we felt like they deserved an opportunity to get some help.”
It makes no sense that the Oakland outfield found stability in a kid who was let go by the Houston Astros and a 28-year-old rookie who toiled for seven years in the St. Louis organization without getting so much as a cup of coffee in the big leagues. But that’s the story of Nick Martini and 24-year-old Ramon Laureano.
Yes, you need to have stars such as Matt Chapman and Matt Olson — both of whom have developed into consistent power threats and Gold Glove performers, with Chapman among the top ten players in baseball with an 8 WAR — and Khris Davis, the major-league leader in home runs.
And it helps to have four guys in your bullpen with significant experience as closers, led by Blake Treinen, the major league leader in ERA (0.81) who has put together the best season seen in these part since Dennis Eckersley (0.61 ERA) in 1990. The others — Rodney (325), Familia (124) and Kelley (15) — have 464 saves to their credit.
Still, you don’t reach the postseason without a Laureano, who threw out eight baserunners in his first 42 games, or a Martini, whose .398 on-base percentage leads the team. That’s why manager Bob Melvin never misses a chance to sing their praises when asked what makes this team special.
“You need contributions from guys you don’t expect,” Melvin said. “You want your key guys to have good years or close to their numbers, but when you have guys that can come in that you didn’t expect, that makes your team that much better. It just seems like this team has gotten better and better as the season has gone along because of some unexpected players.”
The A’s still need to play out the final five games of the season, but the focus will quickly turn to the wild-card game. Who starts it? Mike Fiers? Do they utilize the “opener” strategy?
It’s a decision Melvin and Forst will deliberate over for the next week. Some of it will depend on the location of the game.
“Everything goes into winning that game,” Forst said. “We know how tough it is.”
So let’s say the A’s get past the Yankees in the wild-card game, a reasonable scenario given than anything can happen in a one-game playoff. Awaiting Oakland in the ALDS would be another beast in the Boston Red Sox.
It’s a club that has terrorized the league in building the best record in baseball with MVP candidates Mookie Betts and JD Martinez and Cy Young hopeful Chris Sale.
It would make no sense if the A’s, with the third-lowest payroll in baseball, beat the Red Sox, whose payroll is the highest, and advanced to the ALCS and then the World Series..
And yet, considering the story of the 2018 A’s, it would make all the sense in the world.
— Davis, Chapman, and Jonathan Lucroy each homered in Monday’s win over the Mariners. For Davis, he continued to increase his career-high homer total with his 46th of the season.
Davis has never cared much for the monster home run totals he’s put up over the past few years, he’s just wanted a chance to help his team reach the postseason. Now in his sixth big league season, Davis will finally get that chance.
“It means a lot. I’m watching my dreams come true right now,” Davis said. “I’m just appreciative of the moment right now.”
As for what awaits in that first postseason, Davis fears no team. As a matter a fact, he believes it’s other teams who should fear the A’s.
“I think we’re for real. I know we’re for real,” Davis said. “We’re just gonna go attack mode.”
After a few rounds of serving as the long relief man to Liam Hendriks in the “opener” experiment, Daniel Mengden made his first start since June 23, and it was a solid one. The right-hander allowed three runs over 5 1/3 innings, remaining in the game after a scary moment in the fifth as he was writhing in pain after getting nailed on the foot on a comebacker by Denard Span.