For two months and two days, the A's played better ball than any team in the majors, going 56-26 from July 1 through October 2. That was just good enough for them to catch the Rangers, whom they had spotted a 13-game lead in the AL West race. On Wednesday, the A's overtook the Rangers, claiming sole possession of first place for the first time all season via a wild 12-5 victory inOakland. They overcame an early 5-1 deficit by scoring 11 unanswered runs from the fourth inning onward, taking advantage of a Rangers team whose mistakes increased as the game went on and their deficit grew.
Now the A's, who have won six in a row and nine out of 11 — including five out of seven against the Rangers — will await the outcome of the night's AL East contests involving the Yankees and Orioles to determine whether they'll be the first or second seed during the Division Series. The Rangers will play the wild-card game against the team that comes up short, needing a win in order to continue their shot at a third straight AL pennant.
In the early going, the A's appeared to be the team more likely to travel the wild-card route. Though they scratched out a first-inning run, the Rangers erupted for five runs in the third inning against Oakland starter A.J. Griffin, stringing together six hits in one pass through the lineup. The inning was prolonged when A's catcher George Kottaras failed to catch Mike Napoli's popup between home plate and third base; one pitch later, Geovany Soto followed with an RBI single to bring home Murphy with the inning's fifth run.
That was enough for A's manager Bob Melvin, who gave Griffin the hook after just 70 pitches and eight batters retired out of 18 faced. In my preview, I noted that the 24-year-old rookie had thrown a career-high 181 2/3 innings despite missing four weeks in August due to a shoulder strain, and appeared to be running out of gas after surpassing last year's total of 160 2/3 innings, with just one of his three starts lasting more than five innings. Griffin's average fastball velocity was down by about 0.9 MPH off his previous 14 turns; between that and some bad luck on bloop hits, he was basically "BABIPed to death," to use the shorthand of the day.
Melvin called upon Evan Scribner to extricate the A's from a two-out, two-on jam, which the 27-year-old rookie righty did by inducing Ian Kinsler to ground out. Scribner would go on to give the A's a total of three scoreless innings, the longest stint of the afternoon from a pitching staff running on fumes; he did so by consistently getting ahead of the Ranger hitters, delivering first-pitch strikes to nine out of the 11 he faced.
Meanwhile, the A's surged into the lead with a six-run fourth in the fourth. Dempster had retired eight in a row before issuing a four-pitch leadoff walk to Brandon Moss, and then the A's began punishing the 35-year-old righty's slider. Josh Reddick hit a hanging one on the outside edge of the plate for an RBI double, and Josh Donaldson and Seth Smith both connected for singles, the latter cutting the lead to 5-3. That led Rangers manager Ron Washington — who had declared all of his pitchers besides Yu Darvish and Matt Harrison to be available — to give Dempster the hook in favor of lefty Derek Holland, who himself had scuffled recently, yielding 10 runs in 9 2/3 innings over his last two starts against the A's and Angels.
Holland's entry led Melvin to replace the lefty-swinging Kottaras with the righty-swinging Derek Norris, and while the gambit worked in Texas' favor, Coco Crisp tied the game by slicing a drive down the rightfield line that landed just fair for a two-run double. Holland poured fuel on the fire by walking Drew, but just when it appeared he'd escape the jam by getting Cespedes to loft a 3-1 changeup to center field, the ball tipped off Josh Hamilton's glove and rolled away, allowing two more runs to score. Whether it was the sun, the wind, or the aftermath of Hamilton's recent vision problems was unclear, but it was the blow from which the Rangers wouldn't recover. Balls eluded them with increasing frequency; the A's pushed the lead to 8-5 when Norris' ground ball up the middle deflected off the glove of a diving Elvis Andrus, allowing Donaldson to score.
Having been given the lead, Oakland's bullpen provided further heroics. After Adrian Beltre led off the seventh with a single, Melvin called upon Ryan Cook for the fifth day in a row. Nelson Cruz followed with a double to right field to bring the tying run to the plate in the form of Young, but Cook induced him to ground out to Donaldson at third base, freezing the runners. Cook then got Murphy to chase a fastball in the dirt for strike three, and struck out Napoli to end the threat.
Sean Doolittle, yet another rookie, and a converted position player at that, added two strikeouts in the eighth, including one of Hamilton, and the A's continued puling away when Norris smacked a solo homer and Texas made two more miscues defensively that turned the game into a rout, contributing to the final 12-5 score. After that, it was all over but the frenzied shouting at the Oakland Coliseum, particularly when reliever Grant Balfour — also working for the fifth straight day — came on to close out the ninth inning. When Young's fly ball settled into the glove of Crisp, the A's had their first division title since 2006. In all, the A's bullpen delivered 6 1/3 scoreless innings, yielding just three singles, a double and a walk while striking out eight times.
It was a shocking outcome for a team that came into the year on the heels of five losing seasons and a .500 one in the last six, one that opened the season with the league's smallest payroll at $54 million, and one that didn't climb above .500 for good until July 13, the opening game of the season's second half. Just as the critics were burying Billy Beane yet again, the A's general manager coaxed a remarkable run from a team on a shoestring budget, one that still stuck to many of the Moneyball-era principles that keyed the team's A's success roughly a decade ago.
Playing half their games in the pitcher-friendly Coliseum, the A's came into Wednesday's game hitting just .238/.310/.403, unimpressive numbers that ranked 13th, 12th and ninth in the league, respectively. Hidden in those stats is that the team ranks fourth in walks and isolated power, and sixth in homers; they're still built on patience and pop. Beane used virtually every available method to assemble the team, signing Cuban import Cespedes at a below-market rate relative to the free agent thumpers, churning the increasingly expensive closer Andrew Bailey and starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill to obtain Reddick (the team leader in home runs with 32), Tommy Milone (the staff leader in innings), Norris and Jarrod Parker (the staff leader in strikeouts). They shifted players such as Donaldson (a former catcher), Moss and Chris Carter (former outfielders) around the diamond, and as Joe Lemire pointed out, obtained the platoon advantage more often than any other team in the league thanks to Melvin's maneuvering. Now the A's advance to the Division Series, while the Rangers face the doubts that come with a one-and-done scenario, not to mention a 15-16 record since the beginning of September, and seven losses in their last nine games. It's a story that a month ago or even a week ago didn't seem possible, a reminder that perhaps the best thing about baseball is its capacity to surpass what we can imagine.