HOUSTON — There is something different about the ascendant Oakland Athletics, something difficult to define but evident as soon as you step into their clubhouse. They are, for one thing, the inevitable answer to any question that begins with “Whatever happened to. . .” and ends with the name of some aging, formerly solid, lately down-on-his luck starting pitcher. That guy is pitching for the A’s now, and he owns an ERA so small it requires a microscope to see.
“I walked into some fun baseball here,” said veteran starter Edwin Jackson of his first impression of the A’s, his 13th major league team, who signed him in June after the Washington Nationals released him from their Class AAA roster. Through 12 starts for Oakland, he has pitched to the second-lowest ERA (3.03) of his career and his lowest WHIP (1.156) as a starter.
You could make a strong case that no team in baseball packs more sheer fun into three hours each night than the A’s, whether it’s 30-something starters such as Jackson, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson or Mike Fiers pitching for relative pittances but having some of the greatest success of their careers; or closer Blake Treinen, with his ungodly 99-mph sinkers, becoming the most dominant reliever in the game; or third baseman Matt Chapman, in his first full season in the majors, making one outrageous play after another and entering the discussion of the best in the game at his position.
With their low profile, their decrepit stadium, their 10 p.m. starts on the East Coast and their bare-bones payroll that was the lowest in the majors on Opening Day — not to mention the three last-place finishes from 2015 to 2017, when they were a combined 72 games out of first place — the A’s are accustomed to being afterthoughts within the sport they are paid to play.
“Obviously we don’t get a lot of fans. We’re in a broken stadium. No one likes playing there,” said veteran catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who signed with Oakland in March because, he said, no one else wanted him. “There’s no fame or anything that comes with being on this team. So yeah, I’d say we have a chip on our shoulder. And we like it that way.”
“You go places where you think someone might recognize you,” Chapman said of life on the road with the A’s. “But they won’t.”
But lately it has become difficult for the A’s to maintain their hard-earned, well-protected anonymity. Twelve games behind the first-place Houston Astros in the American League West on the morning of June 18, the A’s reeled off 38 wins in their next 51 games to catch Houston atop the division standings eight weeks later.
And despite two losses in three games against the Astros at Minute Maid Park this week — including a painful, 5-4 defeat Wednesday, when reliever Jeurys Familia gave up a walk-off homer to Houston’s Tyler White — the A’s remain just 2½ games out with 28 left to play and 5½ games up on division rival Seattle for the second AL wild card.
“This team has such a young, fearless energy to it,” said reliever Shawn Kelley, acquired in early August after the Nationals dumped him and unscored upon in his first 10 appearances for Oakland.
So what is it about the A’s that is so different? You could say it this way: They actually, honestly embody all the attributes every other team in baseball thinks they possess.
Every team claims they have a close-knit clubhouse. But the A’s actually hang out together away from the stadium, typically rolling into restaurants a dozen or more strong on the road.
Every team cultivates an us-against-the-world, nobody-believes-in-us-but-us mentality, but with the A’s, that has been very much true, at least until around midsummer. Most preseason projection models had them winning somewhere between 76 and 80 games, and most experts predicted a fourth- or fifth-place finish. “But people know now that we’re a legit team,” Lucroy said, “and we’re coming in to hurt people.”
Every team thinks they have had to overcome the most adversity, but it’s hard to think of another team that is actually down to the 12th or 13th starting pitcher on its hypothetical depth chart, as the A’s are. That’s what happens when 10 different starters go on the disabled list at some point in a season, including three of them twice and five of them lost for the year to Tommy John elbow surgery. Two more starters — Anderson and de facto staff ace Sean Manaea — went on the DL this week, and Manaea, the last man standing from the Opening Day rotation, could miss significant time.
“We signed all those guys,” said General Manager David Forst, speaking of veterans Jackson, Cahill, Fiers and Anderson, “with the idea we might need depth. Unfortunately it has played out exactly that way, almost to a comedic extent.”
Fiers (1.50), Anderson (4.02), Cahill (3.44) and Jackson are all sporting ERAs well below their recent track records, which is at least partly attributable to the superb defense the A’s play behind them and the pitching-friendly environs of Oakland Coliseum. But the team’s vaunted brain trust also has tweaked their repertoires — in Cahill’s case, doubling the percentage of sliders he throws, and in Jackson’s case, cutting his fastball usage almost in half.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as throwing more of what’s effective and less of what’s not,” Forst said. “The historical ideal is [cultivating] a four-pitch mix so you can mix up your pitches. Well, all four pitches are not always equally good, so let’s not throw the third and fourth choices so much.”
Every team thinks they have the game’s next superstar, but in the 25-year-old Chapman, the A’s really might. Already a staple of highlight shows for the sort of spectacular glove work that has drawn comparisons to Colorado’s incomparable Nolan Arenado — Chapman’s former high school teammate — lately he has begun to hit like Arenado as well, with 21 homers, an .890 OPS and a WAR (via Baseball-Reference.com) of 7.6, trailing only Mookie Betts and Mike Trout among position players in either league.
“We knew how good he was,” Manager Bob Melvin said of Chapman, a first-round pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2014. “He’s going to be one of those special players. And to an extent, he already is.”
But like most of the recent Oakland imports, Kelley, the former Nationals reliever, said he had no idea how good Chapman was until he joined the team.
“They were like, ‘This guy is the best third baseman in the league,’ ” Kelley said. “Well, yeah, everyone says that about their guy. And then after watching him for a few days, it was like, ‘Holy [expletive].’ ”
Every team thinks it’s hungry, but the A’s haven’t been to the postseason in four years, haven’t won a division title in five, a playoff series in 12, a pennant in 28 or a World Series title in 29 — and stalking the defending World Series champs, the Astros, for the past few months has only made them hungrier. “There’s no pressure on us. We’re not guarding the flag,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to take the flag.”
The flag still belongs to the Astros, and it drifted a little farther away from the A’s after they lost the series this week, as well as the season series (by a 7-12 margin). But as they packed their bags in Minute Maid Park’s visitors’ clubhouse late Wednesday afternoon, they had a 10-game homestand awaiting them at their ugly, old, crumbling Coliseum and a steady grip on a playoff spot.
Everyone else, slow as they were to awaken, may think they understand now what Oakland is capable of. The A’s, however, actually know.
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