— As bad as things got for the Oakland Athletics in August and early September, and they were historically bad for a while, the A’s are still in a decent position for a team on the verge of one of baseball’s greatest collapses.
Even after Wednesday’s 5-4 loss to the Angels, Oakland is tied with Kansas City for the American League wild-card lead and three games ahead of Seattle with four games to play.
The A’s have their ace, Jon Lester, lined up to start the wild-card knockout game Tuesday. If they win and advance to the division series, most likely against the Angels, they will have one of baseball’s hottest pitchers, Jeff Samardzija, lined up for Games 1 and 5 of the first round.
They also have superb young right-hander Sonny Gray and resurgent left-hander Scott Kazmir to fill out what would be one of baseball’s best playoff rotations.
“In the words of Lou Piniella, there are a lot more doors in the house besides the front door, you know?” Oakland outfielder Jonny Gomes said. “All you have to do is get in. You don’t have to go in the front door. I’m sure there are quite a few teams that would love to switch places with us right now.”
That was definitely true Aug. 10, when the A’s had baseball’s best record, 72-44, a four-game AL West lead over the Angels and an 11-game wild-card lead.
Then the injuries mounted, a Yoenis Cespedes-less lineup stumbled, and the A’s went into a tailspin, losing 22 of 31 games from Aug. 10 to Sept. 12 to fall 11 games behind the division-winning Angels, a 15-game swing in the standings in 33 days.
To put that in perspective, the 1995 Angels, who suffered one of the worst collapses in baseball history, went from 101/2 games up Aug. 16 to three games back Sept. 26, a 131/2-game swing in 41 days.
An A’s offense that averaged five runs per game before the All-Star break scored 3.4 runs per game during the slide, losing 10 one-run games. Oakland has been shut out seven times since Aug. 1. That has put a huge strain on the pitching staff, especially the bullpen, and there were a few late-inning meltdowns.
“Some guys wanted to step up and carry the team for a bit and were pressing,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “We always felt like we were close to turning the corner, but we were never fully able to round it. It was always one step forward, two steps back.”
The popular theory, at least outside the organization, is that Oakland’s struggles coincided with the July 31 trade that sent Cespedes, the popular and productive cleanup batter, to the Boston Red Sox for Lester, the veteran left-hander who has a 1.97 earned-run average in 11 postseason starts.
The A’s believed Lester was the final piece to their World Series puzzle and that the sum of their parts would produce a whole that would offset the loss of Cespedes, the strong-armed left fielder who was batting .256 with 17 home runs and 67 runs batted in at the time of the deal.
Then some pieces started breaking down. Doolittle suffered a strained rib-cage muscle Aug. 24 and sat out three weeks. Shortstop Jed Lowrie sat out the last two weeks of August because of a broken finger. Catcher Stephen Vogt was out 11 games in September because of a sprained ankle.
Center fielder Coco Crisp sat out a week because of a neck strain. Infielder Nick Punto didn’t play most of August because of a hamstring strain. Catcher John Jaso suffered a concussion and hasn’t played since Aug. 23.
“When you have that many guys who are injured, and with the way we platoon and share the load at several positions,” Doolittle said, “it’s tough to get the consistency you need to win games on a regular basis.”
The players who remained lost their punch. Josh Donaldson is batting .204 in September and has three home runs in 38 games since Aug. 13. Brandon Moss is batting .179 (30 for 168) with four home runs and 15 RBIs in 54 games since the All-Star break after batting .268 with 21 home runs and 66 RBIs before the break.
Derek Norris is hitting .227 in his last 44 games. Josh Reddick is batting .258 in his last 18 games. Vogt is hitting .188 in his last 36 games. Crisp is hitting .196 since the break.
“I don’t speak for anyone else, but I started going bad before Cespy was traded,” Moss said. “I got away from what I was doing, taking what the pitchers were giving me, and tried to hit homers. It didn’t work.”
The A’s close with four games at Texas, and if they can get to the playoffs they like their chances. They’ve still got issues, with a spotty offense and sometimes shaky defense that committed three errors Wednesday, but they’re 5-6 in their last 11 games, and they have top-line pitching.
Lester, who took the loss Wednesday, is 6-4 with a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts since the trade, and Samardzija has given up one unearned run in his last 23 innings. Gray is 13-10 with a 3.21 ERA and had a career-high 12 strikeouts against the Angels on Tuesday, and Kazmir is 14-9 with a 3.63 ERA.
“If we can get in, our rotation has the potential to carry us, we have a lot of confidence in those guys,” Doolittle said. “Once you get there, anything can happen.”