by Paul West
On June 15th, the Oakland Athletics were 34-36 and 11.5 games out of first place. Don’t look now, but they’ve just won another series.
In just a handful of weeks, the Athletics have fully transitioned from ‘nothing to lose’ to ‘look out, world,’ and the baseball world is finally starting to realize they’re a legitimate threat.
Over the weekend, they pummeled Justin Verlander to an early exit, while take two of three from the defending champion Houston Astros–whom they also caught up to in the American League West. Monday, in the process of shutting out Bartolo Colon and the Texas Rangers, slugger Khris Davis homered while wearing a jersey one of his fans–a kid from the Make A Wish Foundation—signed before the game. Rookie center fielder Ramon Laureano homered twice. Yesterday, they shut out the Rangers for the second night in a row, getting contributions from up and down the lineup while Davis homered again–an inside-out drive over the right field fence.
“It’s ridiculous he’s not mentioned with those guys,” manager Bob Melvin has said of Davis, who exemplifies the team’s off-the-radar dominance. At 5’10”, he’s not exactly a hulking presence like other sluggers of greater renown; but he can drive the ball to all fields, and he’s currently for 38 homers and 102 RBIs. The Athletics are a balanced, resilient team that can bury you in runs out of the gate, but are also resilient late in games. They have eight players with double-digit home runs, and when switch-hitting second baseman Jed Lowrie hits his next one, they’ll have three with twenty. They have six players with twenty doubles, with Jonathan Lucroy close behind at 19. Four of their five starting pitchers are early-thirtysomething journeymen, all solid middle-rotation types–Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson, and recently acquired Mike Fiers–whose careers have shown both flashes of brilliance and stretches of disappointment; and their ace, Sean Manaea, is a medium-velocity, pitch-to-contact lefty who no-hit the Red Sox in April. The thing is, pitching to contact is exactly how this staff has succeeded: with a rangy, athletic defense behind them, the Athletics’ staff induces a high percentage of ground balls and soft contact, keeping hitters off balance without piling up strikeouts. Second-year third baseman Matt Chapman is already being discussed among the elite defenders at any position. Shortstop Marcus Semien and Lowrie–something of a journeyman himself, in the middle of a resurgent year–are strong defenders up the middle, and first baseman Matt Olson is a big target with a solid glove. Laureano, Stephen Piscotty, and Nick Martini cover a lot of ground in an outfield flanked by a lot of foul territory.
Arguably the Athletics’ biggest strength is their deep, talented, and recently reinforced bullpen. Jeurys Familia, one of baseball’s better closers in recent years, was picked up as a setup man; fellow reliever Lou Trivino has a 1.62 ERA along with four saves, and behind them are Yusmeiro Petit, Emilio Pagan, and lefty Ryan Buchter. Their closer, Blake Treinen, has a .87 ERA, a .98 WHIP, and a wipeout slider. In contrast to the starters, the pen does strike people out, led by Treinen’s 86 K’s in 62 innings pitched.
On on hand, the A’s being in contention is true to form; it hasn’t been that long since they were perennially on the AL leaderboard. Since 2000, they’ve won six division titles and two Wild Card berths. But after making the postseason in 2012, 2013, and 2014, they finished last in the division each of the next three years. They posted a promising finish to the 2017 season, but after the aforementioned slow start this year, few would have expected them to be where they are now.
Alas, here they are: this year’s Cinderella story, talented and playing with an underdog’s mentality. They can win in different ways, their defense and athleticism are slump-proof, and with a strong bullpen and top-to-bottom power, they’re a threat to make a deep run this fall.