Inspired by Mark’s valiant struggle with a second division pathology.
(This started, once again, as a comment that got out of hand)
My beloved Oakland A’s left such a significant imprint in my youth with their early 70’s title run that I can never quite abandoned them.
Their 2018 performance, however, gives credence to the notion that irrelevant narratives are given an unencumbered range to unfold naturally, but that the outcomes of key games are foretold.
The 2018 A’s left the gate with an historically bad defense and yet, by the end of a 97 win campaign, their two corner infielders had snagged the first of many Gold Gloves to come. (Matt Chapman, the A’s third baseman, is being groomed for super-duper star status, thus guaranteeing his best years will be spent in either Boston or New York)
I cannot fathom how the same guys went from lead gloves to gold in a two month period, but by June the A’s kicked it into high gear. And to add to the mystery, they had almost no starting rotation that was worthy of the term, and still managed to win 97 (ninety effing seven!!!) games.
They raided waiver wires and discount bins and Skipper Bob Melvin surely deserved his third manager of the year award as he harbored the most brittle pitching staff in memory to a wild card berth.
How this gang of irrelevants did this, I can only guess, and that guess is that we A’s fans witnessed what can be done if a team, a franchise, is allowed free reign to just play to win. The 2018 A’s, with no control from beyond, showed what a clean game can produce, all things being equal- and that includes not being burden by Pujols-sized contracts forcing an also ran to produces fatal numbers of offensive outs.
I want to believe that, I really do.
But by September, and with a wounded Houston Astros having healed, it was obvious the A’s were going to have to play the Yankees in New York for the wild card berth in the division series. Everyone, including my biggest local detractors, agreed that there was no way the A’s were going to be allowed to win that game. A Yankee/Red Sox series is de facto sanctioned, whenever both teams are available, and so, out of sheer loyalty, I deigned to join my fellow fans in viewing the relatively painless execution.
And the A’s went out of their way to help. First, Skipper Bob loaded his WC roster with relievers, save one spot for starter Edwin Jackson. Jackson, the most traded player in history, is as salty a veteran as there is and had been pitching the best ball of his career, going deep into games to give the hard whipped pen a few extra innings rest. An unfazeable veteran, it was his turn to pitch that day, so of course Melvin picked a non-descript one inning at a time middle reliever to “open” the game. Liam Hendriks is his name. Sounds like a beloved character actor best known for a couple of Star Trek OS cameos.
This spare part dutifully walked the first batter and then dutifully grooved one to Marmaduke who’s exit velocity broke the speed guns as it left the yard, killing two and injuring four others.
Jackson never even warmed up.
The A’s hung around the game until the middle innings when some force must have sent word to take the dive, already. The A’s booted the ball around and the Yanks went up 6 zip. At the plate, the A’s waived feebly at pitches they had spent the whole summer watching dip out of the strike zone as they worked deep counts.
By the late innings I had to stand and applaud as the young upstarts were clearly showing contempt for the PTB, doing a Liston-like splat to the canvas, baseball style. And they weren’t trying to hide it. They were pissed, but had to hold their spleen to a degree just this side of a deliberate wardrobe malfunction. They knew they would have never gotten that far if they hadn’t signed their souls away with their first professional contracts and that reality was having a tough time sinking in.
The A’s will regress to the mean next year as even the useful remains of that phantom rotation are gone, baby, gone. Melvin will have to formalize the new approach to pitching staffs started in Tampa*: Openers, Long Men, Situationists, Set-Ups, and the fabled Closer. No need for starters any more, at least in secondary markets that can’t afford them. The lands of irrelevant narratives.
*Tampa Bay has an old school starter, Blake Snell, who won 21 games with a sub two ERA which netted him the Cy Young Award. He pitched all of 180 innings. He averaged less than 6 innings per start. Twice through the batting order. Expect that to be trimmed to once through the order** for future Starters whom have not been replaced altogether by Openers.
**This trend is part and parcel of the fact that young arms simply can’t bear the stress of pitching high 90’s fastballs and torqueing their elbows with low 90’s sliders. Tommy John surgery is MLB’s HIV, and the only cure, if the speeds of pitches are to be maintained, is one or two innings per pitcher, two or three times a week, maximum.
PS- Yes, I’m speaking metaphorically, re: HIV- And I should mention again that exotic injuries with Greek and Latin roots and familiar abbreviations (ACL) , real or not, would be the best way to manage rosters to steer teams in and out of relevance.
PPS- The A’s lineup was anchored by a monosyllabic talent known as Khrush. This guy has hit exactly .247 for four straight seasons, the last three with over 600 plate appearances each. Nothing like that has ever happened, ever. He’s not trying to do this. He has one move: Swing from the heels. His approach works in the context of the A’s. He lead the world in homers. He even chipped one into the, relatively, cheap seats in Yankee Stadium in the ill-fated wild card game. Is there numbers magic afoot? If there’s an unseen hand at work here, please enlarge me on the topic. I am no mathlete.