WASHINGTON — The Oakland Coliseum is widely regarded as the worst ballpark in baseball.
And that’s OK. It’s not pretty, but it’s ours. It reflects the team that calls it home — a group of misshapen platoon parts, often discarded by others, collected to get the job done no matter how ugly it looks along the way.
I grew up with the Oakland A’s. I watched the Bash Brothers in their heyday, saw Rickey being Rickey. I lived through the ups and downs of the Moneyball era, from The Streak to four straight Game 5 defeats in the ALDS.
Speaking of The Streak, one could make a good case that this A’s season has been a macrocosm of that famed 20th game depicted in great detail in the movie. Oakland, needing just one more win to set a new American League record, jumped out to an 11-0 lead through four innings against, wait for it, the Kansas City Royals. There was celebration in the stands, including my seat — at the far reach of the final section of the second deck, hugging the right field foul pole — a seat I left empty while jumping up and down most of those first few innings.
Then, the unthinkable happened. The Royals scratched and clawed back, with a five-run fifth and a five-run eighth, eventually tying the game in the top of the ninth.
All was lost. It really felt that way. The passion, the energy, the hope had been drained from the Coliseum. There would be no joy in Mudville.
And then Scott Hatteberg cranked a game-winning home run straight past me and into the right field seats, sending a raucous crowd of over 55,000 (!) into delirious pandemonium.
And so, 12 years later, here we are. The A’s have squandered a healthy division lead, but somehow survived their own bumbling ineptitude to make the playoffs.
Honestly, I’m as at ease as I’ve ever been entering the postseason.
In 2000, the A’s drew the free-falling Yankees in the first round, the Bronx Bombers limping in after losing 15 of 18 to close the regular season. We all know how that turned out. In fact, there has been a hefty amount of research put in to disprove the very idea of regular-season momentum having any sway on postseason results.
In 2009, Jay Jaffe masterfully deconstructed the fallacy for Baseball Prospectus. Just a couple of weeks ago, Dave Cameron did the same for Fox Sports. Collecting some late-season wins may make for a good sentiment around the clubhouse and a good story in the press box on the final weekend of the regular season, but it has no bearing on postseason success.
Which brings us back to the A’s. Yes, they went 16-30 to close the season after a scorching 72-44 start. But they still would have had to go 25-21 over that stretch to win the AL West, with the hard-charging Angels running away to baseball’s best regular-season record.
Absent a division title, Oakland still looks better built for October than it has been in each of the past two years, with a rotation of John Lester, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, each of whom rank in the top 50 in baseball in ERA. Their team ERA (3.22) ranks third, their opponents’ batting average (.233) second, and WHIP (1.14) the best in the game.
And if you believe in run differential and statistics such as Expected Wins, the A’s look like a sleeping giant. Based on an MLB-best +157 run differential, Oakland’s Pythagorean Win-Loss Record was 99-63. If anything, that’s the sign of a team that underachieved in the regular season.
Their OPS ranks just 13th, but is still better than the playoff-bound Giants, Cardinals and, yes, the Royals, whom the A’s will face in their do-or-die game Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
They survived a potential collapse for the ages. They might as well just win the damn thing.
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