Seems like there's a lot of debate lately over whether they A's really are, or aren't, legitimate playoff contenders in 2012. I guess it's party that they "aren't," "aren't," "are," "are," "aren't"...depending on whether they just won or lost in reverse chronilogical order. Such is the nature of fandom. It's random, only with an "f"!
But what about for reals? Are they? Jump (because they just lost, so you should jump -- you have nothing to live for, until maybe tomorrow night) to be infused with my exquisite pearls of wisdom...
What the A's are is a "slightly over .500 team," something that has gotten obscured by the fact that they have gotten there by being a gawdawful team and then a 19-4 team. But actually, when it has all averaged out the A's are right about where they "should" be and that is a bit over .500. They're not the great team they looked like in July, nor are they the bad team we all feared and expected they would be in 2012.
A "slightly over .500 team" used to be a team that was almost a contender, but not really. With the addition of the two wild cards, a slightly over .500 team is now a team that will stay in the race right down to the wire. And it's a frustrating ride because while you "need to win" all the time, because 3 teams are separated by 0.5 game with 2 more teams breathing down their necks, you won't win all time -- because you only win a little over half the time.
It's different when you're a .600 team fighting for the division title because, well, you win 60% of the time. Division contenders match wins a lot of the time. Wild card contenders match losses, and split series, far more often. The need to win is just as great when you're fighting for a wild card spot; the ability to win, however, is not.
So what we can probably expect the last 1/3 of the season is for the A's to stay neck and neck in wild card races so tight that they "need to keep winning," and for the A's to keep "winning barely half the time". Luckily, so will most of the teams around them -- until perhaps one or two get hot and takes those spots.
Will the A's be one of those teams? I suspect the A's playoff aspirations will be determined not this coming series, or even later this month, nor in the final series (even though it's more dramatic that way). I think the A's chances will be determined by a brutal 10-game road trip from September 18th-27th.
You could not pick a harder trip than to go to Detroit, New York, and Texas. You're talking about quite possibly the three best teams in the American League, or if not then the two best teams and one of your chief, and most explosive, competitors. You're also looking at two ballparks and lineups, in NYY and TEX, that eat up pitchers.
And then there's the timing of that trip. That road trip will coincide with when the A's young pitchers (Parker, Milone, Griffin, Straily) are reaching new heights for their innings totals -- that is, if they haven't been shut down. Here's where Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson could be godsends, because their arms are fresher (if still attached) and perhaps the A's will have more experienced arms with less mileage on them anchoring the rotation. Travis Blackley could also play a key role. That's the one saving grace I can see getting the A's through that brutal 10-game trip, if McCarthy's shoulder hangs in there for 6-7 weeks, if Anderson's comeback is successful this year, and if perhaps the rest Blackley and Griffin are getting right now pays dividends then.
If the A's go even 5-5 on that trip, they might well win a wild card spot when it's all said and done. If they go 2-8, they likely won't. Until then? Figure on a lot of wins and a lot of losses, because that's what you can expect from the wild card contenders in general. And then find a way to spin magic one more time in mid-to-late September, because anything short of magic won't get you through that trip. Magic, and great pitching, that is.