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Dominant most of season, Oakland Athletics limping to finish line


When the Oakland A’s traded for Jon Lester on the morning of July 31, their Hollywood-approved maestro of a general manager, Billy Beane, rejected the popular notion that he had made the move mostly to shore up his first-place team’s chances at the World Series title that has eluded the franchise since 1989.

No, said Beane, the deal to get Lester from the Red Sox had a far more immediate goal. The objective, he told anyone who would listen, was to win the division. It was a move made for August and September, not October.

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At the time it seemed like a wise -- and mostly futile -- attempt to tamper down expectations of a passionate, if small, fan base that certainly must have felt that this was finally Oakland’s year. Indeed, at the time the A’s, the two-time defending AL West champions and a team that has made the postseason seven times during Beane’s tenure as GM without winning a single game past the Division Series, had the best record in baseball. However, it also held just a 2 ½ game lead on the Angels in the AL West. The good news, though, was that Beane’s crew was up by eight games (and nine in the loss column) for a playoff spot at worst, and led the Mariners, the next-closest team in the AL West and wild card races, by 11 games.

On Monday night, in Chicago, the A’s lost to the White Sox, 5-4, in 12 innings. It was their fifth one-run loss in the last six games. They now trail Los Angeles by a staggering eight games in the division, and their postseason cushion has been deflated to just one game over Detroit and Seattle, which they will face in a three-game road series starting Friday. Oakland entered play on Aug. 9 at 71-44, still the best mark in the game. It will enter play on Sept. 9 having gone an almost unimaginable 9-19 since, the second-worst in the majors in that span. Only Cincinnati is worse.

There were certainly plenty of other pennant race stories that could have been Monday’s biggest headlines. In an afternoon affair in Detroit, the second-place Tigers, behind the maybe-he’s-back-in-form pitching of Justin Verlander, routed the first-place Royals to close their AL Central deficit to one game. In another series pitting the division’s top two teams, the front-running Nationals edged the Braves in Washington to expand their NL East lead to eight games and reduce their magic number to 12. Meanwhile, the Orioles took another step toward their first division title in 17 years by beating the Red Sox, giving Baltimore a double-digit advantage in the AL East race for the first time since 1979.

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Yet all of those plot points pale in comparison to the disaster-in-the-making that is Oakland’s dreadful summer swoon. Monday’s loss was particularly crushing. The A’s took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth and gave the ball to reliever Eric O’Flaherty, who had surrendered just one home run all year. With two outs, he gave up his second, as Tyler Flowers smoked a home run to left field to tie the game.

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The three innings that followed felt like a mere formality. Nine Oakland hitters came to the plate. All nine were retired without incident. The game finally ended when Flowers went deep again with one out in the 12th, this time off Jesse Chavez.

On Tuesday night, the A’s will turn to Lester in the hopes that the man they acquired to ensure they would win the division can instead make sure that, for another day at least, they are still in playoff position. He is 3-3 with a 2.59 ERA for Oakland and he has delivered a quality start in each of his seven outings with his new club. In short, he has been everything Beane could have hoped he would be. Now he must hope that Lester will get the chance to be what everyone else assumed he would be: a man who would pitch the A’s deep into the postseason.

It’s a possibility that, shockingly, looks increasingly doubtful. As Flowers rounded the bases after hitting his walk-off home run on Monday, White Sox broadcaster Ken Harrelson, the homer of homers, exclaimed with excitement on the air, “You gotta be bleeping me!”

The stunned A’s, surely, feel the same way.