BALTIMORE — At this time last year, the Oakland Athletics had found the secret of a stretch run. They went 38-20 over the final two-plus months of the regular season, including a 15-2 run at the end of August and beginning of September, to rocket from wild-card contenders to division champions. They charged through the finish line as others languished thanks to the timely, mysterious combustion of talent and chemistry.
“Baseball’s kind of got that arc. You can’t peak and stay on that high the whole year,” Athletics reliever Grant Balfour said. “Getting a good start is important, then plodding out and playing consistent baseball, and then if you can peak late, that’s a perfect season.”
This year, another handful of teams bunched in the postseason chase find themselves looking for a late-summer spark. Among them are the Baltimore Orioles, shuffling their feet a bit with an 11-10 record in August. And in the dugout across from the Orioles this weekend at Camden Yards was another — the A’s themselves.
“If you can find that last gear and really take off,” Balfour said, “well, that’s easier said than done.”
So far, they have learned how tough taking off can be: The Athletics are two games under .500 since the all-star break and lost two of three to the Orioles, including a 10-3 rout in Sunday’s series finale. But they nonetheless hold the American League’s second wild-card spot by 1 1 / 2 games over Cleveland and two games over Baltimore, and remain in the hunt for the American League West title, trailing Texas by 2 1 / 2 games. And this year’s team sees a few key characteristics it shares with its predecessor.
“Chemistry” is a science term commandeered to describe something that’s anything but scientific, but ask players in the Oakland clubhouse — where couches filled with players in gold and green zebra-striped pants reveal the camaraderie — and they’ll tell you it’s a prerequisite to late-season success.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the team’s chemistry and the overall mind-set of the team,” lefty reliever Sean Doolittle said. “When you get to this point in the year, if you have a couple bad games, if you get guys that start butting heads in the locker room and pointing fingers, it can go south really quick.”
Then there’s the anatomy of the roster.
Even with better-known players such as Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, the Athletics’ fate depends more on frequent platoons and matchup-maximizing lineup-shuffling employed by Manager Bob Melvin to get the most out of a low-profile roster.
“We depend on everyone. When you depend on two guys in the lineup or depend on two or three starters, those guys are going to get cold. And as they go the team goes,” first baseman Brandon Moss said. “For us, it’s somebody different every night, and that’s definitely played in our favor.”
He also explained the importance of an even-keel mentality to a playoff push.
“You can be in Little League and know you’re going to play good games and lose them, and sometimes you’re going to play bad games and win them,” Moss said. “Nothing’s going to take care of itself, but if we play to our capabilities than we’re going to be just fine.
As Moss finished that sentence, the player sitting at the neighboring locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards, left fielder Seth Smith, groaned and rolled his eyes. Because as any baseball player knows, cliches about teams taking things one game at a time and controlling what they can — true as they may be — don’t make those runs materialize.
As the A’s are learning this season, there’s something intangible, uncontrollable and almost supernatural to stellar stretch runs.
“Once you get on that roll, that adrenaline takes over. You don’t think about games back or games ahead,” Moss said. “You almost feel unstoppable.”
In a silent plea to those fickle forces, the notoriously superstitious Melvin stood during his daily pregame news conference on Saturday. Oakland had lost the series opener, 9-7, the night before. Saturday, the A’s would bounce back to win, 2-1.
Before Sunday’s game, Melvin sized up a spot on the dugout bench before snapping back upright.
“I stood yesterday, didn’t I?”
Earning the favor of the baseball gods will have to do, because there’s no perfect solution to the riddle of how to engineer a great stretch run.
Said Melvin: “I think if anyone had the answer for that, he’d probably keep it to himself.”